N.C. lawmakers responding to vetoes before goodbye

The Associated PressJuly 2, 2012 

— North Carolina Republican lawmakers on Monday tried to find enough votes to override two of Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue’s recent vetoes and wrap up their work for the year before Independence Day.

The House and Senate made quick work of canceling her veto of an overhaul of the 2009 Racial Justice Act, which aimed to ensure capital punishment is free of racial bias. But GOP legislative leaders had a harder time squeezing out enough votes from a handful of Democrats to support their budget legislation and authorize hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, to get at natural gas deposits.

“We’re in active negotiations now trying to decide whether to take them up,” said House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, before entering a floor session. Tillis said the talks included House Democrats to vote for the overrides and the Republican-led Senate, which may be required to adjust other pending legislation to preserve the House votes.

It appeared Republicans were closing in on a fracking override as legislators prepared to reconvene Monday night after a dinner break.

Rep. Tim Hager, R-Rutherford, a key proponent of the bill, said he believed lawmakers had accumulated the votes to reach three-fifths majority necessary to implement the law to allow the drilling in the state.

Perdue vetoed the fracking bill Sunday, saying it didn’t address enough concerns about drinking water and landowner protections.

“I feel pretty confident,” Hager said in an interview. “I wouldn’t work as hard if I didn’t.”

A House vote would complete the override, since the Senate agreed earlier Monday to cancel Perdue’s veto on the fracking bill, which would develop rules and regulations for the shale gas exploration and production by fall 2014. The bill makes fracking legal but requires the rules be ready and the Legislature vote again before the first permits are issued to drill.

The most significant veto showdown, however, was over the $20.2 billion budget plan that adjusts the second year of the two-year spending plan approved in 2011. The budget’s second year began over the weekend. Perdue vetoed the adjustment late last week, saying there wasn’t enough to restore spending cuts for public education from last year.

House and Senate Republicans were taking a hard line with House Democrats seeking additional state spending and concessions as they considered whether to vote to override. Tillis and his lieutenants probably needed to win over four Democrats to secure the override. Senate Republicans already have a veto-proof majority and didn’t sound like they were willing to budge on a spending plan that addressed needs with Medicaid and the public schools.

“We’ve passed a budget that’s done away with those concerns,” said Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. “The governor and the Democrats are the ones who don’t want to go forward.”

The Republican-penned budget bill Perdue vetoed would provide a 1.2 percent pay increase for state workers and public school teachers – their first raises in four years – and reduce by about one-fourth the $503 million that school districts would be required to cut in the coming school year.

Republican leaders have suggested they could go home for the year without an agreement to the budget adjustments, meaning the second year of the two-year budget would be implemented. That budget contains no pay raises and the $503 million in spending cuts for districts.

The Legislature wiped out Perdue’s veto of the overhaul to the 2009 Racial Justice Act. It scales back the law that allowed death-row prisoners to use criminal justice statistics to attempt to prove racial bias in sentencing or jury selection. A judge that finds bias can reduce a death sentence to life in prison without parole.

The Senate and House planned to adjourn Tuesday although at different times. Senate Republicans were determined to complete this year’s seven-week work session shortly after midnight. Tillis said he expected his chamber to return in the daylight hours to finish.

Lawmakers spent Monday in and out of floor sessions and committee room to consider dozens of bills they hoped to approve before Tuesday. Several pieces of legislation neared passage, including a bill that would rework the state’s sentencing laws to comply with a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision and another that creates governing rules for new regional mental health administration agencies.

Barring veto override sessions later this summer, this week’s meetings could be the last for more than 45 of the Legislature’s 170 members who won’t return after the November elections largely due to retirements, redistricting or primary defeats. The next regular session of the Legislature is in January.

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