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The General Assembly needs you

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Those visiting the N.C. General Assembly for the first time find it a confusing place to get around. For starters, there's a "legislative building" and a "legislative office building," so named even though both have legislative offices and both have legislative committee rooms. Which building do you want? Worse, if you're in the legislative building, you're probably lost, because all four "quads" look the same and the room numbers tell you only that whoever designed this place had no interest in whether you could find your way around or not.

So, with the General Assembly set to begin the 2004 "short session" on Monday, May 10, and with at least three big issues coming up of interest to the progressive-minded, those thinking of trying to weigh in personally with their elected representatives should consider going with a group on its scheduled "lobbying day." Three issues, three days:

Raise the cigarette tax: Tuesday, May 11, is "advocacy day" for the N.C. Alliance for Health, which consists of groups like the American Lung Association of N.C. A 75-cent tax increase would raise almost $400 million a year for the state, which could be used to fund anti-smoking campaigns and other good causes; meanwhile, smokers would be encouraged to quit, and non-smokers--especially teens--discouraged from starting.

Same-sex marriage rights: Wednesday, May 12, at 2 p.m., the N.C. Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality is holding a press conference and is asking supporter to come. (It's at the State Capitol.) The group, which includes pastors and lay people alike, has drafted a statement supporting, as a legal matter, the right of same-gender couples to marry. Religious groups need not recognize such marriages, it argues, but neither should "sacred texts and religious traditions" be used to create a legal barrier to marriage equality. Meanwhile, conservatives in the General Assembly want to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriages, which would require three-fifths passage by both houses of the legislature and voter approval. Expect fuel on the fire after May 17, the day same-sex marriages in Massachusetts are scheduled to start under an order of that state's Supreme Court.

Death Penalty Moratorium: Tuesday, May 18, is "moratorium lobby day," when advocates start their final push for the bill that would halt executions in our state for two years while the whole question of capital punishment is examined. The measure, Senate Bill 972, passed the Senate last year, and its backers said they were within five votes of being able to get it passed by the House, too. But unless the House approves it this year, it'll have to start all over again with the new General Assembly we elect in November. And even if it passes the House, it will need Gov. Mike Easley's signature, which is--so far--not something our pro-executions governor has said he'll provide.

Most of the General Assembly's time will be spent adjusting the biennial budget enacted last year--that and posturing for the July primaries and November elections. The main posturing will be over whether to "adjust" the corporate income tax rate downward, from its current maximum of 6.9 percent. N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry, the bidness lobby, is pushing a cut to 5.9 percent, which would cost the state about $200 million a year but "create jobs," supposedly. Most Republicans are all for it. A lot of Democrats, including Senate President Marc Basnight and Easley, are making pro-tax cut noises, throwing out ideas like exempting the first $25,000 of a business's profits from the income tax--an estimated $44 million item.

The idea that business tax cuts create jobs is denounced by progressive Democrats as--in the words of Durham Rep. Paul Luebke, finance committee chair in the House--"just crap." Luebke is among those pushing for a cigarette tax hike. Basnight, too, has said he'd support higher "sin" taxes on booze and cigarettes to offset any revenues lost from a corporate tax cut.

Virginia's Republican legislature just increased that state's cigarette taxes from 2.5 cents per pack to 30 cents, even though Richmond is home to the biggest cigarette plant in the country, owned by Philip Morris. Indeed, Philip Morris supported the increase, thinking it could've been more. North Carolina's 5-cent tax is now second-lowest in the country (behind only Kentucky). New Jersey, at $2 a pack, is highest.

The tax-cut side argues that North Carolina is a high-tax state for businesses, discouraging investment here. However, the highly regarded N.C. Budget & Tax Center, a nonprofit watchdog, says that the state's 6.9 percent rate--already cut from 7.5 percent in 1997--ranks 29th out of the 50 states; moreover, when all taxes on business, especially property taxes, are considered, North Carolina is one of the very lowest-tax states. And The News & Observer, citing the General Assembly's research division, reported last month that the share of taxes paid by businesses is going down while the share paid by workers is going up. Corporate income tax collections dropped from11.8 percent of total tax collections in 1987-88 to 6.6 percent last year. But the share coming from personal income taxes rose from 46.7 percent in 1987-88 to a high of 55.6 percent in 2000-01.

In an election year, the progressive Common Sense Foundation says, legislators will be pressured hard "to cut corporate taxes and shift the tax burden onto the poor through excise taxes on alcohol and cigarettes." What should happen instead, it argues, is that businesses should be asked to pay more of the state's expenses than they currently do and the poor should pay less. "But corporate interests are pushing hard on this one," says the group's executive director, David Mills.

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