Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Hello there and welcome to the News 14 Carolina Political Connections blog. My name is Tim Boyum, and I'm Senior Political Reporter. I also host Political Connections, which airs Friday nights at 6:00 and Sunday mornings at 11:00.

My goal for this blog is to give you a behind the scenes look at what's going on at the General Assembly and generally in state government.

Tomorrow, of course, another session begins. It gets underway in both chambers at noon. For the first time since 1999, the House will elect a new speaker. Orange County Democrat Joe Hackney is the Democratic caucus nominee and by all accounts will be elected. In the Senate, President Pro Tem Marc Basnight (D-Manteo) will be elected for another term. This first day will be largely ceremonial. Both chambers will swear in new members, elect leadership, and basically adjourn. It will likely take several weeks to shake out committee posts in the House, so expect many bills to be introduced but little action.

This is the start of a new two year budget which means there's a clean slate.

With a lottery intact, minimum wage raised, and other big issues taken care of last session, this presents an interesting time for lawmakers. Some believe there are few "sexy" issues to take up, so it could be a time to take on monumental changes that generally get pushed aside. Some lawmakers would like to give the state's tax system a major makeover to better match the 21st century needs. Others want to take on mental health, soaring health care concerns, and giving cities and counties more power to make their own decisions.

Don't get me wrong, there will be plenty of "sexy" issues. More than two dozen lawmakers have sent a letter to Governor Easley asking him to stop executions until lethal injection can be studied. With a federal study in hands, expect a big push to ban smoking in places like restaurants, bars, and places of work. At the minimum, ban supporters want to give local communities the chance to make that decision. After a huge pay raise last year, there's questions about teacher pay again this year. Will there be a blanket raise or will math and science teachers get the bigger hike? As usual, the budget will create a stir among everyone involved and the merits of an often talked about budget deficit after July 1. Or will agency cuts and better than expected revenues be enough to solve the gap?

If you could pick one theme that will center around many issues that will take center stage you could argue that theme will be growth. Transportation officials will likely ask for a large statewide bond to pave desperately needed roads. There's an estimated $65 billion dollar gap over the next 30 years. Educators want a two billion dollar bond to help counties build more schools. Statewide, there's a nearly ten billion dollar need. There's also a push for a water bond to help build water and sewer lines. There's a nearly seven billion dollar need in that category too. Will there be a bond for any or all of these? All of this money is needed as North Carolina continues to rise in population and revenues in those areas continue to fall.

With Representative Hackney as likely House Speaker environmental issues could get some action this year as well. Last week, Senator Basnight also said global warming was one of his priorities. With new ethics laws in place, there's already confusion among many lawmakers and lobbyists. Some want either clarification or more changes.

Bottom line, there are more issues than I can hit in a blog entry and keep your attention with! It's a busy year but stay tuned because while it may not seem like the sexiest news stories, what lawmakers do at the legislature affects every one of us every day. Stay tuned!

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