July 12, 2012

UPDATE: No new or increased ferry tolls – at least for a year

By CONNIE LEINBACH



Ocracoke Island residents and visitors have at least a one-year reprieve from a rise in ferry tolls, thanks to legislation passed in the 2012-13 North Carolina state budget.

The $20.2 billion budget passed June 21 with no new or increase in tolls on any ferries in the state.

“Senate bill 187 modified (last year’s) mandate for new and/or higher tolls,” noted Joe McClees, part of a lobbyist team that includes his wife, Henri, from Oriental hired by Beaufort, Pamlico and Hyde counties to fight the tolls.  “It does away with all toll increases for this year.”

McClees credited the passion of coastal community citizens and officials for getting legislators across the state to understand this issue.

“We made the ferries one of the top issues in the state,” McClees said. “We made (the legislators) see that the ferries are part of the highway system.”

McClees noted that House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican, was solidly on the side of islanders, which is different from a year ago.

“If he hadn’t been on our side, we wouldn’t have gotten this through,” McClees said.

McClees urged islanders and friends of Ocracoke to continue to send letters and e-mails to Tillis and others to thank them for their support. Among those who stood up for coastal communities are retiring Democratic Rep. Tim Spear (District 2), Democrat Bill Owens, and Republican Norman Sanderson (District 3).

Rep. Harold Brubaker from Asheboro, in the middle of the state, also was a supporter, and noted during the House debate that he had learned more about ferries in the last few hours (of debate) than he ever wanted to know, according to McClees.

Last year’s budget battle ended with the Hatteras-Ocracoke and Knotts Island ferries being exempted from tolling while raising tolls on all other routes starting April 1. 

Gov. Beverly Perdue issued an executive order before that date putting a moratorium on raising ferry tolls.  The ferry toll tax battle continued until this new budget concluded the issue for this fiscal year.

The budget passed the legislature on June 21 with no new tolls on the Knotts Island ferry and the Ocracoke-Hatteras ferry and a one-year moratorium on tolls for the Minnesott Beach-Cherry Branch ferry. 

According to information from the McCleeses, with the passage of Senate Bill 187, with a push from Rep. Bill Cook (Republican, District  6) in the House, the Senate agreed to a one-year moratorium on new tolls and a moratorium on all increases in existing tolls on other ferries.  The Bay River-Aurora ferry would have had a first-time toll starting immediately but for the efforts of Rep. Cook.

Although the budget was vetoed by Perdue for other reasons on June 29, the veto was overridden July 2. The specific ferry language begins on page 129 of the Budget Bill.

But the issue is not over, Joe McClees noted, and there is work to do until a new General Assembly convenes in January to protect the free ferries on a permanent basis.

“We wanted a study bill with citizen participation,” said Henri McClees. “Now it appears the issue may be addressed by the Legislative Research Commission before the 2013 legislative session.” 

For more information on this legislative entity, see LRC site: http://www.ncleg.net/gascripts/DocumentSites/browseDocSite.asp?nID=147.

Until January, the McCleeses will work on continuing to thank legislators from both parties and to study the impacts of ferry tolls on struggling coastal counties.

Darlene Styron, the Hyde County commissioner from Ocracoke, while thankful for the efforts of all involved, noted that islanders and coastal citizens cannot let their guard down.

“We will have this issue again next year and we’re still going to have to band together and stay involved,” she said.  “Our representatives (in the House and Senate) fought strong for us, as did the McCleeses and everyone who wrote or called.”



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