Gov. Mike Easley signed North Carolina's $18.9 billion spending plan for this year Monday, praising the General Assembly for its commitment to fiscal discipline, education and the mentally ill.

The spending plan adjusts the second year of a two-year budget approved last summer, so a late start didn't cause any fiscal problems within state government. A record revenue surplus - about $2 billion of additional money - also helped.

With average 8 percent raises for public school teachers and at least 6 percent for university and community college staff, the budget bill spends $943 million on education compared to last year's budget, according to legislative staff.

The bill gave what Easley sought to help at-risk students and poor school districts. Legislators also agreed to hire 100 middle-school literacy coaches, as Easley requested.

Mental health programs received an additional $95 million to help redouble efforts to improve treatment in community settings. Lawmakers also agreed to issue more than $328 million in debt to replace two mental hospitals and complete work on a third. The bonds are part of more $672 million in debt to be issued through mid-2010.

The budget partially cut two "temporary" taxes first approved in 2001, dropping the state sales tax by a quarter-penny and the individual income tax rate for the highest wage earners from 8.25 percent to 8 percent.

With the Senate concurring to changes made by the House, lawmakers Monday night finalized a proposal that requires all North Carolina passengers to buckle up. That measure now goes to the governor for his signature.

Supporters of the bill, which passed 30-17, have cited immeasurable cost to society when unbuckled passengers are seriously injured. They said unbuckled back seat passengers can fly forward and injure front seat occupants during an accident, causing additional medical costs and high insurance premiums.

"We all pay for it, and that's where the role of government comes in," said Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange. "It's not just an individual choice."

"We are faced with a bill that says government can make the decisions for you," said Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. "We continue to see an erosion of our personal freedoms."

Under North Carolina's child safety law, anyone under the age of 16 must use a seat belt no matter where they ride in a vehicle. However, older passengers only have to use a seat belt in the front seat.

The bill makes the back seat law a secondary violation, meaning law enforcement cannot stop a vehicle solely for a seat belt infraction. If a driver is pulled over for another reason, non-buckled occupants of the back seat could face a $10 fine.

Almost 20 other states, including South Carolina, have passed laws requiring a seat belt in the back seat. It was also a major recommendation of North Carolina's Child Fatality Task Force.

Easley signed a bill Monday to prohibit smoking in General Assembly buildings, as officials in the nation's largest tobacco-producing state continue to favor North Carolina's health over its heritage.

"It's symbolically - and physically - important for all those that have to work here," said Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, the bill's sponsor.

Lawmakers have cited a number of health concerns in their decision, namely seeking to preserve the health of the tens of thousands of school children that frequent the General Assembly each year.

Last week, the surgeon general released a report citing "overwhelming scientific evidence" that involuntary smoking causes heart disease, lung cancer and a list of other illnesses. The analysis also named additional health risks for children.

But unlike some 20 states that have approved bans on smoking in restaurants and bars, Tobacco Road legislators aren't within smelling distance of anything extensive.

It has been quite an effort for lawmakers to get this far. In recent years the General Assembly stamped out smoking in the Senate and House chambers as well as some other state buildings, such as museums and prisons.

Last year, in perhaps the biggest recent blow to North Carolina tobacco farmers, state lawmakers pushed the cigarette tax to 35 cents, up from just a nationwide-low 5 cents one year ago.

Seeking to patch any holes in North Carolina's criminal justice system, the state Senate approved a bill Monday to create an "innocence commission" that could override a court to free a prisoner.

The eight-member commission would conduct inquiries into claims of innocence. A convicted criminal would have to petition the commission, citing new evidence that may prove a new verdict.

A criminal justice task force recommended the panel. The task force was formed in part because of the murder case of Darryl Hunt, who spent 18 years in prison for the slaying of a Winston-Salem woman before DNA evidence exonerated him.

If five of the eight members agree there is enough evidence, the case would be sent to a three-judge Superior Court panel. Charges would be dismissed if the judges unanimously determine there "is clear and convincing evidence" that the defendant is innocent.

And while the House would allow a split decision of a three-judge panel to be appealed to the state Supreme Court, there is no such provision in the Senate bill and provides for no additional appeals.

Republican lawmakers urged the state Senate Monday to approve legislation requiring that North Carolina schools set aside time for students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, accusing the Democratic leadership of holding hostage an issue with broad public support.

While the measure would require school districts to provide a time each day for students to recite the pledge, it would not compel students to declare the pledge. It also urges school districts to display the U.S. and North Carolina flags and provide curriculum on the pledge and the American flag.

"I didn't anticipate such a struggle. I thought we had unanimous support," Casada said after a news conference. "It's ridiculous that the Senate leadership is playing petty politics with our bill."

The Senate would have given final approval of the measure last week by merely concurring with the House proposal, which would require that schools hold a daily recitation of the pledge. Instead, Senate Democrats sent the bill to a committee that rarely meets.

Sen. Julia Boseman, D-New Hanover, called on the House to adopt her version of the bill, which is nearly identical but requires more education about the flags and North Carolina's symbols and motto, including the values and principles they represent.

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