Easley signs budget bill; constituents flood senators’ offices with calls about lottery By David Rice JOURNAL RALEIGH BUREAU
State senators left Raleigh for a week yesterday with lots of bills under their belts – but no state lottery.
Though the House passed a lottery in April for the first time in recent memory, the Senate’s 21 Republicans and five of its Democrats denied Senate leaders the majority a lottery needs in the 50-member chamber, despite efforts to persuade opponents to switch as the 2005 session winds down.
"Nothing changed," said Marc Basnight, the president pro tem of the Senate. "It hasn’t changed in weeks from that position."
Basnight said that senators could still vote on a lottery, either when they return Aug. 23 to try to finish the session, or next spring, when they return for their so-called "short" session.
"It’s not over yet," Basnight said. "If there’s some movement on either side, you could see the lottery either year…. If someone does not move, if someone more than likely in the Republican ranks does not change their position, there will not be a lottery."
Expectations for a lottery vote rose last week after legislators approved a budget that lays out how proceeds from a lottery would be divided between class-size reduction, school construction, pre-kindergarten and college scholarships if it is approved.
Lobbying pressure both for and against a lottery also increased. Gov. Mike Easley, a longtime lottery supporter, pressured reluctant senators by phone.
The N.C. Association of Educators used recorded phone messages to voters in the districts of three opponents – Sens. Charlie Albertson, D-Duplin; Harry Brown, R-Onslow; and Janet Cowell, D-Wake – resulting in a deluge of calls to some Senate offices.
"We’re trying to create awareness in the public of what they stand to gain from the school-construction piece," said Cecil Banks, the manager of government relations for NCAE.
Banks pointed to the one high school in Jones County, in Albertson’s district. The school was damaged by Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and needs to be replaced, he said.
"The lottery would offer one way of replacing that school," Banks said. "They simply don’t have the local money to replace that building."
But Albertson said that the calls to his office didn’t change his mind.
"We had a lot of people calling both ways," he said.
Albertson said that the state should not deceive its own citizens into playing a game with extremely long odds.
"When you go to government, you should expect a fair shake, and the lottery kind of preys on people," he said. "It’s not a religious thing. It’s just a good-government thing with me. When you go to your government, they shouldn’t mislead you."
Another opponent, Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, said that feelings about a lottery run deeper than on most issues.
"For the opponents, it is a matter of principle – it is a deeply held feeling," Nesbitt said.
The Rev. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, who worked the halls of the legislature, agreed.
"You’ve seen a real demonstration of character, which is something you don’t see here very often," Creech said as it became clear there would be no lottery vote.
"You see politics prevail, but you don’t often see people acting completely on principle. These (lottery opponents) really believe that there’s a line they mustn’t cross, no matter what it may cost them," he said.
Easley, meanwhile, signed the $17.2 billion budget bill yesterday after keeping the state in fiscal limbo for two days.
The Senate gave final approval to the budget Thursday, and a stopgap spending bill to keep state government running at 2004-05 levels expired Thursday night.
But Easley waited until yesterday to sign the budget, even though the state had no budget in place.
"It is one of the best education budgets I have seen," Easley said in a statement, adding that the 2005-06 budget will spend $500 million more on education than the 2004-05 budget did. "It reforms our high schools to improve the graduation rate, continues to invest in early childhood education, smaller class sizes and teacher pay," he said.
In response to a long-running lawsuit over state support for poor schools, Easley pointed to $42.5 million in spending on poor and disadvantaged districts, as well as money to pay for 100 child and family support teams and to expand the More at Four pre-kindergarten program to 15,000 children.
"This is the first time the plan for low-wealth schools has been so significantly funded," he said. "This legislature is taking seriously the constitutional right for every child to have a quality education regardless of where they live in this state."
In an effort to improve teacher recruitment and retention in a state that doesn’t produce enough teachers, the budget also includes $170 million over two years for Easley to use to improve teacher pay.
One of the actions the Senate did take yesterday was to undo a provision in the budget that Easley signed.
Easley and Jerry Meek, the chairman of the N.C. Democratic Party, are at odds over appointments that Meek recommended to Easley recently for the State Board of Elections.
So the budget included a provision to change the law that says the governor must take the recommendations of the chairmen of the major political parties in making appointments to the board.
But Senate leaders reconsidered, and the Senate approved an amendment yesterday to a separate elections bill that removed the budget provision about elections-board appointments.
"Why take it away from a very, very popular chairman (Meek) who’s working among the counties and the precincts?" Basnight said. "He had the authority."
The Senate also gave final approval to a bill that sets new requirements for voting machines that can be used in the state, beginning with the 2006 elections.
The bill would allow only voting systems that use paper ballots or have paper backup records to verify results.
Legislative analysts say that the new law could require as many as 88 counties to replace voting equipment, at a total cost of $46 million to $135 million. But they note that $53 million in state and federal funds is available to help counties replace voting machines.
• David Rice can be reached in Raleigh at (919) 833-9056 or at [email protected]