Chapel Hill's legislative priorities will have to wait

| March 17, 2010

The General Assembly's upcoming short session will focus on the budget and not much else, the Orange County delegation informed Chapel Hill Town Council members over breakfast last week.

"We're told from session to session, you know, that the short session is going to be short and sweet. I do believe it's going to be this time," Sen. Bob Atwater said. "For sure, except for those things that we absolutely have to deal with, we will not be dealing with anything controversial."

Enacting a two-year budget represents no small task, though. House Speaker Joe Hackney said the state has a "$1 billion range" deficit to close.

Central to that work, Hackney said, will be balancing collection of the income tax with expenditures on Medicaid, the state health plan, the prison health system and enrollment increases at public schools. He said Gov. Bev Perdue has held back enough money to account for about half of the deficit, but the General Assembly will need to find savings for the rest of it.

Along with Hackney and Atwater, Representatives Bill Faison and Verla Insko and Sen. Ellie Kinnaird provided Chapel Hill Town Council members with a preview of what's to come when the session starts May 12.

The annual early-morning meeting typically offers town leaders a chance to push local bills and understand the future flow of federal and state funding.

Following the hour-long back and forth, Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt agreed that it would be a long shot to get any of the town's legislative agenda passed this year, save for adding Chapel Hill to a 2009 bill that would allow Raleigh and Winston-Salem to build energy-saving infrastructure without competitive bidding.

The three new ideas raised by the council—addressing tax disparity for residents who live in towns that straddle county lines, creating new special election options for midterm Town Council vacancies and gaining authority to ban cell phones for drivers—aren't priorities this year.

On the county tax issue, Kinnaird said a "gentlemen's agreement" would be the most feasible way to solve the problem, which impacts residents of about 1,900 Chapel Hill homes that lie in Durham County.

On special elections: There's some momentum on the issue, given the appointment mess ex-councilman Bill Strom created by resigning during the election filing process, but Kleinschmidt told the delegation, "I don't think it's something we really want to push you on at this time."

On authority for a cell phone ban: Councilwoman Penny Rich, who raised the item, says the town wants to wait on a transportation study due in April before moving forward. Hackney wondered how commuters entering Chapel Hill would be aware of cell phone restrictions, especially given that "you don't allow signs," he joked.

The town did receive assurance from Hackney that local revenues, such as the utility franchise, alcohol taxes and contributions to transit and fire protection, would not be taken away.

Though Sen. Atwater added, "You certainly have to keep your guard up."

All five of the General Assembly members at the table, each a Democrat, are up for re-election in November.

Rep. Bill Faison said polls he's taking "at the end of a handshake" have him worried that local frustration with Washington, D.C., will trickle into the November election.

"They tell me that they are real unhappy with the Democrats, they're real unhappy with Republicans and they don't think much of the independents, which puts at risk whether or not they will go to the polls and vote," said Faison, warning that political turnover could result in deep cuts that will limit the scope of social programs and education.

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