The gavels fell at noon Wednesday in the Legislative Building, bringing the House and Senate officially back to work after a nine-month absence.
Their main business will be to adjust the second year of the two-year budget approved by lawmakers last summer. Democrats estimate between $800 million and $1 billion in additional revenues or spending cuts are needed to balance the budget for the year starting July 1.
But Democratic leaders, who control both chambers, have made clear they don't want to stick around too long after the budget adjustments are made and signed by Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue. Senate Democrats say they're still on track to pass their version of the budget adjustments by May 20.
"We don't have money to fix most problems, so there's not a whole lot of reasons to stay around here," said Senate Majority Leader Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe.
Lawmakers also will consider campaign finance and ethics bills and reforms to the state's liquor sales system. Lobbyists and advocates for a host of interest groups and legislation swarmed the legislative complex downtown to prepare to push -- or push back on -- legislation that has a chance to pass before adjournment.
"Our goals for this session are to have an expeditious session ... but also to have a thorough session," House Speaker Joe Hackney, D-Orange, said while releasing the House Democrats' four-point agenda to help small businesses create jobs, protect public education to keep teachers in the classroom, root out government waste and fraud and pass ethics and state contract reforms.
Republicans, who are aiming to win back both chambers in November and control the once-a-decade redistricting in 2011, were unanimous in voting against last year's budget bill. That could change this year if Democrats find real savings and don't use scare tactics of severe cuts to generate new revenues, House Minority Whip ThomTillis said.
"You can't sugarcoat what is a poorly run operation that has lots of costs that should be driven out before we ask for another dime from taxpayers," said Tillis, R-Mecklenburg.
Hackney said he wants to work with Republicans on issues but wouldn't consider GOP legislation he considers political in nature. That would appear to include bills Republicans want heard that would exempt North Carolina from the federal health care law.
Dozens of conservative activists gathered behind the Legislative Building to denounce the health care law and its mandate for everyone to buy insurance or pay a fine starting in 2014.
Republican congressional hopeful Bill Randall, who faces a runoff next month for the right to represent the GOP in November's election against incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Brad Miller urged the crowd to face the building and shout their demand for greater freedom now.
Others wore red shirts while lobbying senators to approve changes to the state's involuntary annexation rules.
"My question is how long are these senators going to sit on their hands while the cities continue to abuse the law?" asked Tony Tetterton with the Fair Annexation Coalition.
Wednesday was largely about ceremony, renewing acquaintances and recognizing new members.
Democratic Reps. Diane Parfitt of Cumberland County, John May of Franklin County and Chris Heagarty of Wake County took their seats for the first time, while new Democratic Sens. Michael Walters of Robeson County and Margaret Dickson of Cumberland County were recognized. Six other House members who lost in last week's primary began what will be their final regular session.
The arrival of Dickson, a former House member, highlighted a changing of the guard in the Senate. She replaced Majority Leader Tony Rand, D-Cumberland, who resigned in December to join the state parole commission. Nesbitt now sits in a front row seat next to Senate leader Marc Basnight where he and Rand had helped rule the chamber for most of the last decade.
Basnight wouldn't speculate this week about when this year's session would end.
"Welcome back to your summer home," Basnight, D-Dare, told colleagues before the Senate adjourned for the day after a 20-minute session where only one bill was considered. "Hopefully we do not spoil our vacations that may occur or may not occur."
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