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RALEIGH — After two weeks of skeleton sessions and cancelled committee hearings, the N.C. General Assembly returns to a somewhat normal schedule in a slightly less-slushy capital.
Budget hearings start back up on Tuesday to begin the work of setting spending targets. Both the state House and Senate are awaiting word from the governor’s office about the release of the executive branch’s budget request. The scheduled drop date of the governor’s proposal is “March,” according to those close to the discussions.
In addition to this week’s budget previews, the House Finance Committee takes up new omnibus legislation on economic incentives and the Senate’s gas tax and transportation funding bill.
The economic incentive package, which cleared some committee hurdles last in between the dual snowstorms, gives Gov. Pat McCrory some of what he wants in the way of beefed-up spending for economic incentives. But it does not contain a provision restoring the historic preservation tax credit, which McCrory and has campaigned for at stops around the state.
If the Senate debate was any clue, the Finance Committee will take a hard look at the gas tax bill. The WNC delegation is divided over the bill on partisan lines, but the bill, which would temporarily lower gas taxes and eventually lead to higher taxes, has a number of skeptics in the House.
It also calls for the N.C. Department of Transportation to cut about 500 positions.
Fight over marriage exemption
Although even its critics said the bill was well-drafted, a Senate measure passed last week to allow magistrates to opt out of performing marriages for strongly-held religious reasons is likely to be heavily debated in the weeks ahead.
The bill, which proponents say is a response to court rulings that legalized same-sex marriage in North Carolina, passed on a 32-16 vote after two hours of tense debate that showed strong emotions on the issue on both sides.
Sen. Ralph Hise, R-McDowell, argued strongly for the bill saying it was not about gay marriage, but about public employees being able to practice their religion.
“I think to say that this is about gay marriage is a cover,” he said. “This is about people of faith being driven out of public service.”
He said he had a lot of discussions in the six counties he represents about the reaction to the court ruling clearing the way for the state to issue licenses to same-sex couples.
“While they were celebrating in Buncombe County when this came down ,” he said, “I didn’t know if the courthouses would open the next day in several counties.”
He said in some counties all the magistrates said they were leaving office and felt targeted.
Hise was challenged by Durham Democrat Sen. Floyd McKissick, who noted that only seven or eight magistrates statewide had left office because of the ruling. Hise said the others who said they were leaving had not done so because they knew the exemption bill was coming.
Buncombe County Democrat Sen. Terry Van Duyn argued that it was time for the state to “turn the page.” The bill, she said, allows same-sex couple to continue to be treated as second-class citizens.
“It says loud and clear that discrimination is alive and well in North Carolina and it has the stamp of approval of the legislature,” she said.
Legislation of note to WNC
Elections for the Cherokee County Board of Education would become partisan races under H110, a new bill introduced by Rep. Roger West, R-Cherokee. The elections would start in 2016 and primaries for the races would also be held.
Haywood, Madison and Yancey counties would see greater flexibility in setting school calendars under a new bill introduced by Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Yancey. The bill, H94, would take effect in 2015-2016 school year.
Also recently introduced:
• H113 — Presnell is one of four main sponsors of a bill that would strengthen penalties for sex offenses committed by higher education school personnel.
• H95 — West co-sponsored legislation clarifying the authority of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians Tribal Alcoholic Beverage Commission to issue wine permits and to underline the tribal commission’s exclusive authority to do so.
• S129 — Hise and Hendersonville Republican Sen. Tom Apodaca are co-sponsoring legislation to require internet publication of legal notices and to adjust rates for multiple publications of printed legal notices.