- Associated Press - Thursday, April 2, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The North Carolina Legislature began a rare spring recess Thursday after a week of finalizing changes to the state gasoline tax and passing a previously announced deal that should decrease electricity rates for hundreds of thousands living in the eastern part of the state.

Lawmakers, particularly those in the House, acted upon dozens of bills before the Easter weekend and formally taking next week off for a break and family vacations.

“We have really drained the cup as far as the bills that were in the committee and eligible to be heard,” House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, told colleagues. “We’ve gotten ahead, and I think the break is well-deserved.”

Legislators still have little concrete, however, to show the public from the two year session that began in earnest Jan. 28. Although more than 130 substantive bills have cleared either the House or Senate since the session’s first day on Jan. 14, barely a dozen have become law or await Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature. McCrory signed the electrical power bill into law Thursday in Wilson.

The number of completed bills or new laws is lower compared with the same point two years ago, when Republican legislators joined by the new GOP governor made early splashes with unemployment benefits changes and responses to the federal health care law. Portions of two of the 10 legislative weeks so far have been waylaid by bad weather.

“I have to admit I have some concerns about the speed we’re going, but here again, we didn’t want that aggressive of an agenda this time,” said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, the Senate Rules Committee chairman.

Even with no recorded votes next week, senators and representatives are still expected around the Legislative Building. Senate leader Phil Berger said he anticipated some GOP caucus meeting to discuss bills. House budget writers also would be meeting privately to continue their work on a two-year spending plan starting July 1 through mid-2017.

House Republicans are targeting passage of its version of the budget by May 15, soon after revenues from the key April 15 tax returns are counted, said Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, senior co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. The Senate will then create its own plan. The two chambers want to get a final budget to McCrory’s desk before July 1.

Work also should pick up toward the end of the month toward a self-imposed deadline that essentially dooms bills unrelated to taxes or spending that don’t pass at least one chamber.

Before leaving Thursday afternoon, the House finally passed its permanent rules for operating the chamber for the 2015-16 session. The 25 page document lays out the details of how business is conducted, bills are managed and negotiations with the Senate are handled.

The House also gave its final approval to legislation laying the groundwork for future use of a new class of pharmaceuticals called interchangeable biological products, or “biosimilars,” which should cost less than expensive drugs for treatment of serious disease.

The Senate voted to expand the type of educational qualifications required to become a licensed professional counselor to include programs that are accredited by national groups. Currently, licensure is limited to students from regionally accredited schools. The leaves out many seminaries or faith-based schools, according to Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, the bill sponsor.

The measure passed 33-11 despite opposition by the state’s licensing board for counselors, which wrote to senators Wednesday arguing the bill would lower licensure standards.

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