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Smoke-filled rooms no more

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Quick, name a public building where there are ample numbers of ashtrays scattered about. In another sign of the shifting fortunes of Big Tobacco, senators spent more time last week debating how to spend settlement money from tobacco lawsuits than they did whether to ban smoking from the halls and offices of the legislature.

Time was, you could see smoke stream out when you opened the doors of some of the smaller committee rooms, and it was common for a legislator to fire one up while reading over an amendment or report.

Tobacco's presence in the legislature has lingered longer than most places. Until 2003, you could smoke in the visitor galleries and on the House floor. Last year, the same year a slim 30-cent-a-pack tax hike was passed, the Senate finally banned smoking on the floor. For now, though, you can puff away in the halls, and if someone wants to fire up in committee they damn well can. That is, until the House takes up the bill. There may be a little more fire with the smoke during that debate. Expect to hear a speech or two about the glorious legacy of the golden leaf.

But such sentiment no longer trumps the weight of science on secondhand smoke. The Senate vote left little doubt.

Even Alamance Republican Hugh Webster's last-minute plea for autonomy in his office--an appealing argument for many a pol--fell 36 to 11. In the end, reminded perhaps that the most prominent sign when you approach the building from Jones Street tells the school kids where to line up, only Webster and Goldsboro Democrat John Kerr III voted against the ban. The rest of the Senate kicked the habit for good.

AND THEY'RE OFF

Sometime around 11:45 a.m. on Thursday, June 15, the Senate received a special message from the House noting the passage of a new version of the state budget. In a brief formality, senators voted 47-0 not to concur, setting in motion a conference committee and with it the next round of horse-trading.

While the major money difference is in whether the counties will get Medicaid relief, the big philosophical difference was evidenced by the House's removal of several special provisions, including the minimum-wage hike (they passed it as a separate bill earlier), the moratorium on mega-landfills and, curiously, something about repealing a kindergarten eye exam program. Whether you think it's a step in the right direction or not, some people are going a little overboard in saying the House has produced a truer budget "stripped of policy" as Appropriations Co-chair James Crawford (D-Granville) said at the opening of debate last week. If deciding how the state spends $19 billion isn't policy, I don't know what is.

FERRY CHIEF GOES DOWN

A federal jury last week found former N.C. DOT Ferry Division Chief Jerry Gaskill guilty of lying to federal investigators as the case of the not-so-accidental channel drew to a close in Raleigh.

The case began after a May 2004 incident involving a Ferry Division tug and a sensitive stretch of Currituck Sound that happened to be in the proposed route for a new ferry service. The first reports were that it was an accident, but after some investigation and guilty pleas, it turned out to be an orchestrated end-run around dredging permits.

Through a practice known as "kicking a channel," the tug's propwash carved 4 to 5 feet off the bottom of the shallow sound. The accident story--that the tug cut the channel trying to get out after it got stuck--fell apart as soon as people started looking closely at the aerial views. The "accidental" dredging went on for 730 feet and included a berm and new navigational signs. You really haven't been able to do that without a permit since the federal Rivers and Harbor Act of 1899.

Judge Terrence Boyle threw out charges that Gaskill, who ran the ferry service from 1993 until he was indicted in January, was part of a conspiracy. He still faces up to five years and a $250,000 fine for giving false statement to the feds.

RUSH, THAT WAS SO LAST MONTH

Mr. Limbaugh was heard extolling the bravery of Vernon Robinson the other day, playing his nasty little Twilight Zone commercial, which is now a golden oldie, and sputtering questions about why we can't have more more candidates like that. Throughout the bit, Limbaugh repeatedly referred to Robinson as a Winston-Salem Republican, inadvertently underlining Robinson's "outsider" status. Outsider, as in, filed to run in a district he doesn't live in. Though it's constitutional, it's not something you want in your talking points. More candidates like that? Yes, please run more embarrassingly vitriolic and alienating people who don't even live in the district they want to represent.

Kirk Ross travels the state for CapeFearMercury.com and writes about state governance at ExileonJonesStreet.com. He can be reached at editor@capefearmercury.com.

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