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Moratorium may be a victim of co-speaker deal

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The death penalty moratorium looks to be doomed in the General Assembly, a victim of the co-speakers deal in the House. The shared-power arrangement assures that a small bloc of Republicans will vote with the Democrats to pass a "moderate" budget, which they've done two years running. Without Republican Co-Speaker Richard Morgan's group, the 59 Democrats would be insufficient to enact one by themselves in the 120-member house; if they had to deal with the conservatives who control the Republican caucus, deep cuts to education and human services programs would be inevitable.

In the bargain, though, Democratic Co-Speaker Jim Black agreed not to push any "controversial" bills to the floor over Morgan's objection, and Morgan objects to the moratorium bill. So the moratorium (Senate Bill 972) remains in limbo, as the 2004-05 session winds down, despite having passed the Senate last year by a 29-21 vote. Also stuck: the gay-bashing "Defense of Marriage Amendment" to the state constitution, a House bill with 67 co-sponsors, mostly Republicans, that Democrats don't really want to vote on. That's part of the deal too.

Moratorium backers believe they now have the support of a majority of the House for their measure, which would halt executions for two years while a study is undertaken of the capital punishment machinery in our state. And it's not controversial, says David Neal, one of the leaders of the N.C. Coalition for a Moratorium, given that North Carolinians, in a recent poll, were in favor of it by almost 2-to-1.

But Neal acknowledges the widespread misperception that it is controversial, they don't have the votes, and consequently there's no chance of getting Morgan-Black to relent. "Everybody's saying that, but we're still here, and we have a lot of momentum on our side--a lot of public support," he says. "Anything can still happen."

The coalition is making a last-ditch effort Wednesday, June 30, with a barbecue for legislators at the General Assembly building. And the Black Leadership Caucus is calling on Morgan to allow a vote. But unless black legislators, or some other band of Democrats, are willing to dig their heels in on the budget itself, and refuse to vote for the final version (currently being hashed out by Senate and House negotiators) unless the moratorium bill is voted on too, it's not going to happen.

And, waiting in the wings: Gov. Mike Easley, who's given every indication that if a moratorium bill reaches his desk, he'll veto it. Legislators are trying to wrap up the current session this week, so they can campaign a bit before the July 20 primaries. Barring a special session, they wouldn't return, and the newly elected General Assembly won't be seated until January 2005.

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