Politics & Government

Last big acts: Crime penalties, water rules

Lawmakers came to the 2008 session two months ago hoping to pass a budget and little else. By the end Friday night they had tackled the state's shaky probation system, tried to rein in mental health reforms run amok, adopted drought emergency measures, and imposed tougher penalties on child sex offenders.

On the other hand, lawmakers did little to address transportation needs, and authorized a record $857 million in borrowing for prison, UNC campus and state agency projects without voter approval.

They could not agree on a bail-out for the health plan that serves roughly 650,000 state employees, teachers, retirees and their families. Those on the N.C. State Health Plan will have to worry whether their co-payments for services could be increased this year if the plan's finances deteriorate.

"We'll just deal with it on a week-to-week, month-to-month basis," said House Majority Leader Hugh Holliman, a Lexington Democrat. "If we get into real trouble we'll just have a special session."

Ran Coble, executive director of the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, said Democrats who control the legislature accomplished their major goals, and did not commit missteps that could haunt them in November elections. The $21 billion state budget, for example, was supported by a majority of House Republicans, largely because it did not increase taxes and contained a modest increase in spending.

Coble criticized the level of borrowing and said lawmakers still need to improve public access to budget negotiations.

"If I had to give the session a grade, I'd give it a B," he said.

Democrats and Republicans said they can use their work during the past two months to their advantage.

Democrats will emphasize the money they've put into education.

Senate leader Marc Basnight, a Manteo Democrat, said the spending contributes to the goal of building "a knowledge-based economy," that attracts scholars and supports high-tech industries.

"What we're preparing North Carolina for is a better, stronger economy," he said. "Can you politic on that? Yeah, you can."

Political charges

Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger said Republicans have strong arguments this year that the Democrat-dominated legislature mismanaged money and left the state with crumbling roads, and a failing education system

"Most people realize that more money does not mean better results," said Berger, a Rockingham County Republican.

The Senate, a longtime Democratic stronghold, is facing the possibility of tremendous turnover. Some of the more influential senators are retiring or running for statewide offices, and several incumbent Democrats face tough battles to hang on to their seats.

Sen. John Kerr, a Goldsboro Democrat, is leaving after 22 years. The tall man with halting speech was a longtime co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee who could be counted on to speak up for tobacco after it had gone out of style.

Sen. David Hoyle, a Gaston County Democrat, called Kerr "a character and a legend."

Rep. George Holmes, a Yadkin County Republican, is retiring after 32 years in the House. Rep. John Blust, a Greensboro Republican, said Holmes was "always a gentleman."

Stam praises Hackney

Friday also capped House Speaker Joe Hackney's first two-year term running the House. Hackney, an Orange County Democrat, drew praise from both sides of the aisle for his fairness and professionalism.

"He defuses things from becoming too boisterous or too argumentative, sometimes by just saying nothing and letting you guess what he thinks," said House Minority Leader Paul Stam, an Apex Republican. "But I really appreciate him."

Friday was a stop-and-go day of floor votes, impromptu committee meetings and rushed negotiations. At times lawmakers got testy amid the crush of last-minute legislation.

Question, quick rebuff

At one point, state Sen. Richard Stevens, a Cary Republican, questioned the fairness of legislation that allowed Gov. Mike Easley to take $1 million from any state agency to devote to his Learn and Earn initiative that allows high school students to get a four-year college degree tuition free. Stevens asked why the money couldn't come from the Department of Public Instruction's budget.

Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand quickly rebuffed him.

"Because we're going to adjourn in a few minutes, and that's what it says," said Rand, a Fayetteville Democrat.

The legislation passed both chambers a short time later.

The session ended in camaraderie.

As is tradition, House and Senate leaders ended the session by simultaneously ringing bells. The House and Senate clerks dropped handkerchiefs at the same time.

Then, legislators who spent eight weeks fighting it out in government's trenches exchanged handshakes and hugs.