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Blue light special

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On Jones Street last week there was a lovely, upbeat atmosphere as the state Senate, on an accelerated timetable that's warp speed compared to years past, brought a budget to the floor in record time. It was proof of how much easier the conversation goes when you're divvying up a couple of billion dollars rather than goring oxen to cover a shortfall.

The pace of what may actually be a short short session is evident, with every interest group imaginable descending on Raleigh to get theirs as if the General Fund is having a blue light special.

The Senate's budget debate was Wednesday, State Employees' Lobby Day at the legislature--also Clean Water Lobby Day, Design Day, Hadassah Lobby Day, Insurance Day and a couple of other Days. Around lunchtime there was a grill and barbecue courtesy of the Welding Society at Piedmont Community College, and the Coastal Federation roasted Stump Sound oysters on the mall. Life was good. Roaming the halls in large numbers amid the schoolkids and the suits were designers and engineers, women from Hadassah, dozens of folks wearing "Clean H2O" stickers, and nearly 200 members of the State Employees Association's Member Action Teams--all wearing blue shirts that read "Going to the MAT."

"Last year there were 150 of us," said Cindy Williams, who works for the courts in Onslow County. "This year we've got more than 300 signed up." This year they might get something other than 2 or 3 percent, as there is, indeed, a ton of money--$18.8 billion--in the bill. It's debatable how porky it is, but there's no doubt it's one of the more economically progressive budgets in a while, hardwiring a $1-an-hour minimum wage hike (from $5.15 to $6.15) and rolling back those temporary sales taxes passed at the dawn of this millennium.

The House fires up hearings on the bill this week and has promised an equally aggressive timetable. One major sticking point--counties are lobbying hard to get roughly $65 million in Medicaid relief not in the Senate bill.

Items of interest

  • It's not that they don't trust ya, kid, but there's a strong movement afoot to fingerprint and run criminal background checks on every student coming into the UNC system. Sen. Neil Hunt first proposed the move as a special provision to the budget. Hunt, a Wake County Republican, cited the rape and murder of a UNC-Wilmington student by another student last year and this spring's SUV attack in Chapel Hill by a recent UNC-Chapel Hill grad. One added benefit: Hunt said his amendment would make it impossible for a convicted terrorist to be admitted to the university.

    But the prospect of UNC getting stuck with the tab led Senate Rule Chair Tony Rand to ask Hunt to withdraw the amendment and reintroduce it as a separate bill. The new measure--S2002--requires a state and national criminal background check and fingerprinting of every student, with the prints to be sent to the SBI and FBI for review starting in 2007. UNC system officials oppose the idea, saying it would be costly, cumbersome and not yield a lot of information on incoming 18-year-olds since most juvenile records are sealed.

  • Attention Green Hornet, Maxwell Smart, Michael Knight--it may soon be illegal to have a secret compartment in your auto. House Bill 2145, accurately titled "Secret Compartments in Motor Vehicles," makes it illegal to have one. The bill also applies to "trucks, buses, motorcycles, mopeds, bicycles, aircraft, helicopters, boats, ships, yachts, railcars, rail engines, and any other property that may be attached to, pulled, towed, or drawn by a vehicle."

  • The Senate has delayed discussion until early June on a bill that would repeal the kindergarten eye exam program that got House Speaker James Black into hot water. As you may recall, the speaker, a respected Matthews optometrist, last year was entrusted with more than a hundred undated checks with the recipient's name left blank from the North Carolina State Optometric Society's PAC--an age-old practice that the State Board of Elections thinks might just be illegal. Still, Black's not backing down. A counter provision is bubbling up in the House that could be titled: "Hell no, we're not repealing the eye exams."

    How strange is this square-off likely to get? Senate sponsor Julia Boseman, a New Hanover Democrat, is determined, calling it an unfair and expensive burden to put on parents. In all, 87 school boards are suing the state over the requirement. But the program has its backers. The Optometric Society's president Dr. Hal Herring told senators at a recent hearing that his organization would not abandon the children of North Carolina. "We will stand with them, even if we stand alone," he said. The society's members also stand to see some business. According to the school board suit, this year about 119,000 children will enter kindergarten in North Carolina, where an exam will run you somewhere between $50 to $165.

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