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Wednesday, 14 June 2006 00:00

Land for Tomorrow: Will it pass the state legislature?

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Land for Tomorrow is a statewide campaign to raise $1 billion in state funds to preserve farmland and forestland, create new state parks and natural areas, restore historic sites, develop local parks and greenways and protect views along scenic highways.

Land for Tomorrow supporters aren’t asking state legislators to approve $1 billion outright. Instead they want Land for Tomorrow to go on the November ballot as a bond votes. Voters would then decide whether they value farmland preservation enough to set aside state tax dollars for it. If the bond passed, $200 million would be allocated each year for five years.

Land for Tomorrow advocates believe voters will support the bond if it gets on the ballot. The trouble is getting state legislators to put it on the ballot. Time is running out to get through to state legislators. Known as a part-time legislature, they travel down to Raleigh for just a couple months in even years — which are coincidentally campaign years. They approve a state budget, do a little housekeeping and quickly return to their hometown.

This year they are moving at a particularly brisk clip. They’ve just been in Raleigh since mid-May but could be hightailing it home with a finished budget by the end of June. On paper, support for Land for Tomorrow bill looks good. So far, 22 out of 50 state senators have signed on as co-sponsors. In the House of Representatives, 75 out of 120 have signed on.

“It is an amazing diversity of people who have signed on. It is not a Democrat-Republican thing or an urban-rural thing,” said Kate Dixon, state director of the Land for Tomorrow campaign.

Dixon said she thinks there are legislators in both the Senate and House who are willing to bring the bill to the floor for a vote.

The biggest obstacle to Land for Tomorrow, however, is competition from another proposed $1 billion bond package — this one for water and sewer. If approved, the $1 billion would be used to upgrade water and sewer across the state. It would include the expansion of water and sewer lines, which often pave the way for development, making it somewhat ironic competition for the Land for Tomorrow bill intended to save some of the rural landscape and natural places from development.

Some legislators are concerned there isn’t money to do both. If both get put on the ballot, and voters approve them both, the state would have to come up with $2 billion over five years.

Dixon said philosophical support for a Land for Tomorrow bond vote is plentiful.

“It is more about is there the money,” Dixon said. “That’s what the big discussion is about.”

Here’s what your legislators say about Land for Tomorrow and its prospects.

Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy (represents Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Jackson, Macon, Swain, and parts of Transylvania and Haywood)

Co-sponsor: Yes.

“I am for preserving the farmland as much as we can. We are having a rush on the sale of land.”

Snow said Cherokee County recently had a backlog of 950 septic tank permits for new construction

“It’s just an indication of what’s going on out here,” Snow said.

Snow has read the Land for Tomorrow literature and studied the Web site. He said it has broad support in the General Assembly, but competition to get the $1 billion water and sewer bond vote on the ballot could force the state to choose. Gov. Mike Easley is particularly against putting both on the ballot.

“What I am hearing is that everyone wants it but the governor is concerned about out debt limit,” Snow said.

Sen. Keith Presnell, R-Burnsville (represents Madison, Avery, Mitchell, Yancey, McDowell and most of Haywood)

Co-sponsor: No.

“I haven’t heard a whole lot of talk around the legislative building about this. I couldn’t make a commitment until I check around about it. I really have to look at this and see what is in the bill.”

Presnell would not say when he would get a chance to do that.

“We have been very, very busy,” he said.

Presnell is supporting the $1 billion water and sewer bond because “I know how much water and sewer can help our small towns and rural Western North Carolina.”

Rep. Ray-Rapp, D-Mars Hill (represents Haywood, Madison, Yancey)

Cosponsor: Yes.

“We are losing about 100,000 acres a year to development. That’s why this is such an important initiative for us to pursue. We are pushing as hard as we can to get traction in the General Assembly to get this on the referendum ballot in November, but it is an uphill battle.”

Rapp cited the push for a water and sewer bond vote, as well a push for a statewide school construction bond vote, forcing legislators to possibly pick and choose.

“If we have too many bond issues on the ballot it is a whole lot easier to vote no. You can overwhelm people.”

Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva (represents Jackson, Macon, Swain and part of Haywood)

Co-sponsor: Yes.

“We have to preserve a certain amount of our heritage. That’s why we live here and why everybody wants to come up here ... I’ve heard a lot of favorable discussion of it. As we say in our lingo, there is definitely some traction for it.”

As the chairman of the justice and public safety subcommittee, Haire spent most of the past two weeks with his nose to the grind stone on the state budget for prisons and courts and wasn’t sure of the bills latest status, however.

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