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Pulling the right strings: Lawmakers work to bring home the bacon

It was a big week in the legislative building in Raleigh last week.

The House of Representatives would vote on its version of the budget, prompting a great deal of last-minute wrangling by those who hadn’t gotten what they wanted. The budget is written in sundry committees: education, prisons, courts, natural resources, social services and so on.

After it’s sandwiched together and before it’s presented, there’s a small window for lawmakers to add extra items they hadn’t succeeded in winning so far. There were 40 such attempts in the House last Tuesday, among them one by Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill. Rapp wanted to increase the vaccine compensation for first responders like health department workers, ambulance drivers and law enforcement — the community’s frontline defense in case of an epidemic. Rapp was one of just a few who made enough of the right allies and shook enough of the right hands to get his request passed.

“It’s one of those things where if you snooze, you lose,” Rapp said.

The skills of Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, in this legislative tango paid off for him as well. He secured $2 million to design a new health and aging research building at Western Carolina University, and another $2 million for a new forest service office in Jackson County. The old forest service office is on 7 acres adjacent to Southwestern Community College — seven acres the college could use to expand their campus.

But Haire’s fight wasn’t over. There are three state budgets on the table: the House’s, the Senate’s and the Governor’s. Each budget is slightly different. A line item that’s in one budget but not the others is fodder for the chopping block as lawmakers begin to hammer out the differences.

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Money for the forest service office was chopping block fodder. Haire had less than a week before lawmakers would start looking for things in each budget to sacrifice. So he got busy calling on allies and cashing in owed favors.

“I’ll have to fight to keep it,” Haire said. “You haven’t seen old Phil fight if they try to take that out of there.”

Haire was breathing a little easier over the $2 million for the WCU building. It seemed safe and sound, thanks to a little tag-team action by Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, who pulled the right strings in the Senate to get it in their budget, too. Items in both budgets typically stay in.

Meanwhile, money for Haywood Community College is a longshot this year, although it hadn’t appeared to sink in for Sen. Keith Presnell, R-Burnsville, who introduced a bill to get $1.8 million for the college. Presnell couldn’t describe just what the $1.8 million was for at first.

“That is for...let’s see, I’ll just get it for you,” Presnell said, rifling through a binder on his desk, but couldn’t find the bill.

“Rhonda will have to get it for you,” he said, and was soon handed a copy by his assistant.

“That’s for new projects — buildings — building projects,” Presnell said.

The bill was only one sentence long, setting aside $1.8 million in state funds “for a new building” at Haywood Community College.

Presnell apparently hadn’t pulled the right strings though. The money wasn’t in the House budget, Senate budget nor Governor’s budget. Presnell said he was still hoping to get it in the final budget.

“If you don’t ask, you don’t get it,” Presnell said.

It would be highly unlikely for the money to suddenly appear in the final budget when Presnell could not secure it in his own Senate budget. In all fairness, however, the majority of such line item requests never see the light of day.

This year there were some 2,000 requests from lawmakers for projects back home. Rapp said lawmakers in the House of Representatives came to a tacit agreement to back off all but the most necessary.

“No one is going to talk about pork in this budget,” Rapp said. “We agreed to stay focused and not put these special projects in there.”

Of course, that meant some here in WNC lost out. Like the new building at Haywood Community College and a Welcome Center at Lake Junaluska, Rapp said. But the sacrifices were fairly spread across the state, Rapp said.

“Otherwise we could have been here until November fighting over those,” Rapp said.

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