June 14, 2012

UPDATE: Ocracokers are in shock about Republicans’
renewed effort to put tolls on Hatteras Inlet ferry


Democratic state Sen. Stan White wants the North Carolina Republican Senate leadership to tell him the difference between enacting and raising ferry tolls along the coast and the Senate’s desire not to raise taxes.

White was talking in a late-afternoon interview after Wednesday’s Senate session, during which his budget amendment to delay additional ferry tolls until 2013 failed.

Earlier this week, the state Senate submitted its proposed 2012-13 budget, which directs the North Carolina Department of Transportation to tax all ferries beginning July 1 and ignore the moratorium placed on raising ferry tolls put in place earlier this year by Gov. Beverly Perdue. 

The House’s version spends $127 million more than the Senate’s version but, thanks to an amendment by Rep. Timothy Spear, postpones until 2013 raising ferry tolls or enacting them on non-tolled routes, such as the very popular with tourists Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry.

Last year’s budget battle ended with the Hatteras-Ocracoke and Knotts Landing ferries being exempted from tolling, while raising tolls on all other routes starting April 1. Perdue’s executive order putting a moratorium on raising ferry tolls delayed that implementation.

At the end of each  Senate session, the Senate President Pro Tem always gets the last word, White said, after which, no other senators are supposed to speak.  The last remark Phil Berger, the Pro Tem, said Wednesday was that the Senate was not going to raise taxes, White said.

“I wanted to say, ‘Explain the difference between a toll and a tax', “White said, “but I didn’t and will say that tomorrow (Thursday).”

White’s amendment failed by a vote of 21 for and 26 against. Of the 21 votes in favor, all were Democrats plus Republican Sens. Jean Preston, Harry Brown, and Wes Westmoreland.

The state Senate has 31 Republicans and 19 Democrats. White is a Democrat who represents Dare and Hyde counties.

White said that before the session begins today at 11, his staff will be working on finding the $2.5 million needed to muster enough votes among the Republicans by cutting several smaller portions elsewhere in the transportation budget.  White, who has worked in the transportation department, said that within the agency’s huge budget he should be able to find several projects where small amounts can be shaved in order to make up the $2.5 million.

When the Senate’s version of the budget passes today, the budget will go into a conference where both it and the House’s version will be hashed over to come to a consensus before sending it to the Governor.

“It’s going to be a monumental battle,” White said about the upcoming budget negotiations.

Henri McClees, of the lobby team hired by Hyde, Pamlico and Beaufort counties, said Wednesday that as soon as they know who the budget conferees from the House and Senate are, McClees will send out that information so that constituents can write and call them.

She said the conference meetings will be private but that the lobbyists will be outside the room to meet them when they come out.

She also reported on White’s speech on the Senate floor, during which he reminded fellow Senators of the long coastal recovery from Hurricane Irene. 

“Coastal citizens do not complain about how much it costs to build roads in the mountains or how much money is spent on highway loops around major cities,” McClees reported White saying.  “We just want to be able to get to work.”

Reaction on Ocracoke to the Republican effort to bring back a toll on the free Hatteras-Ocracoke Ferry so soon was generally shock.

“I’m really disappointed,” said Darlene Styron, Hyde County commissioner for Ocracoke.

“Right when you think you’ve taken a step forward, we’ve taken two steps backwards.”

She said she doesn’t think it’s legal for a law to land-lock an area without any free access, which is what would happen if the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry is tolled.

Without the free Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry, locals would have to pay for any trip off the island for shopping, medical appointments, or anything else. And, in addition, Ocracoke depends economically on day trippers from Hatteras and the northern Outer Banks who have said they will be less likely to make the trip if they have to pay.

Also, the General Assembly want to raise tolls on ferries that travel to and from Ocracoke and the mainland, which are also very important to locals who have to visit the county seat, Swan Quarter, to county employees, and visitors coming to the island from the south and the west.

“We need to pay attention and watch what happens every day,” Styron added.

“It’s just disheartening to see how the House and Senate are so far apart,” said Rudy Austin, president of the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association.  “This is our transportation.”

He said it costs more to build one mile of road in the mountainous western part of the state than it does to build 50 miles in the flat eastern part of the state.

“We don’t complain about that,” he said.  “To even think about doing this in July in the middle of our season shows how out of touch (the Republicans) are.”

McClees suggested that citizens thank White for his support by calling or emailing: Sen. White: office (919) 733-6854 or [email protected]

She also suggested they call the President Pro Tem of the Senate Phil Berger:  office (919) 733-5708, or [email protected] to express disappointment at the Republican majority’s determination to unfairly tax coastal citizens.

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