This Week

A week that began looking like it would be somewhat uneventful became very interesting as budget writers met publicly Tuesday and Wednesday in an attempt to further negotiate the budget differences between the House and the Senate.  The House held “Skeleton sessions” (no votes taken) all week and the Senate held them for most of the week, with the exception of Thursday to vote to adopt the conference report on the Common Core legislation.  Senate Rules Chairman, Sen. Apodaca (R-Henderson) again delayed concurrence votes for Coal Ash, Business Court Modernization and Disapprove Industrial Commission Rules to Monday evening’s calendar.  When asked whether the Senate would concur on the House’s version of the coal ash clean-up legislation, he replied “absolutely not”.

Sen. Apodaca also moved several miscellaneous bills Thursday from other committees to the Senate Rules Committee and then announced that starting Tuesday, the Rules Committee would meet every morning next week.  This maneuver is setting up for a marathon week as legislators move closer to a budget compromise and the bills Sen. Apodaca moved to Rules are about to undergo extensive reconstructive surgery.  Some of the bills that traditionally surface from bill “gutting” at the end of session include legislation to designate interim study committees, a technical corrections bill which is an omnibus bill that makes various changes to statutes, and certain pet issues that members were not able to get enacted in the normal legislative process.  This is the most dangerous time of the session and heightened vigilance is required.

As noted last week, House members will be given at least 48-hour notice for returning to Raleigh to vote on the budget conference report, which should lend to three days of business before adjourning “sine die” until January 2015 with a newly elected legislature.

Christmas in July

The halls were not decked, but the conference committee room certainly was, complete with a wreath on the podium, stockings hung in front of Senator’s name placards and Christmas lights strung in front of the seats of House Majority Leader, Rep. Starnes (R-Caldwell) and Majority Whip, Rep. Hager (R-Rutherford).  Despite the decorations, one might say there was a lack of holiday cheer among conferees, but Sen. Apodaca was in the Christmas spirit as he distributed lumps of coal to all of the House members. 

This was indeed the picture in the budget conference committee meeting Wednesday afternoon following two meetings, Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning, where the threat of being in Raleigh until Christmas was tossed around.  Wednesday morning’s conference committee structure was organized so that the House would chair for one hour and the Senate would chair for the next hour.  The House was set to go first, but after a testy debate over the rules of the conference committee, all of the Senators on the conference committee got up and left. 

Senate leaders argued that only members of the committee should be allowed to speak unless agreed upon by both chambers.   House Budget Chairman Rep. Dollar (R-Wake) allowed public comment from three county Superintendents, a teacher and a principal prompting the Senate’s departure before the speakers began.  The House continued to hold the meeting until Senators returned an hour later to take the gavel.  Speaker Tillis noted for the record that he had added himself to the committee earlier that morning and was therefore allowed to speak, drawing a chuckle from the audience.

After the Senate returned and public negotiations renewed, leaders from both chambers criticized each side for not moving enough on the negotiations.  However, some progress was made.  The Senate withdrew their position to require teachers give up tenure for the pay raises and the House agreed on the Senate’s projected number for lottery revenues.  Last week the Senate also accepted the House’s Medicaid reversion number.  

The final sticking points seem to be how much of a raise to give to teachers and state employees and where the money for those raises should come from.  The most recent offer from the House included a 6% pay raise for teachers that does not reduce Medicaid eligibility and does not cut teachers assistants in the second and third grades.  The latest proposal from the Senate included an 11% salary increase and gets the money for the increase by reducing Medicaid eligibility and cutting funding for teachers assistants.  Governor McCrory Thursday issued a veto threat for any budget bill that resembles the Senate budget, drawing rebuttal from Senate Pro-Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham).  The next public conference committee meeting is scheduled for Monday afternoon, although informal talks between the chambers continue.

Below is a series of articles covering the proceedings:

Little progress as budget fight drags on – WRAL

Senate drops plan to kill teacher tenure – Charlotte Observer

Some sunlight helps state budget negotiations move forward – The Voter Update

McCrory criticizes Senate on budget talks – WRAL

NC Senate drops tenure from teacher raise proposal – N&O

Lottery deal struck, but budget progress remains elusive – WRAL

House ups teacher pay in latest budget offer without sacrificing TAs, Medicaid – WRAL

Latest state House budget offer raises average teacher salary 6 percent – N&O

McCrory says he'd veto Senate pay plan – WWAY

Budget battle sharpens with veto threat – WRAL

Negotiating budgets in the sunshine tough, but laudable open-government exercise – John Locke Foundation

What’s Left on the Agenda?

Actually a number of top priority items have been stalled, sidelined or sent to conference committees.  The reasons for inaction vary from resolving real policy differences between the House, Senate and Governor, to pure political posturing.

The primary focus is the budget, which is undergoing semi-public negotiations.  The Senate has also failed to act on a number of House proposals, including coal ash clean-up, business court modernization, and disapproving rules from the Industrial Commission.  Regulatory reform was sent to the Senate Ways and Means committee which consists of three Senators and has yet to meet this session.  Medicaid Reform was sent to Senate Rules.  Sen. Apodaca chairs both of those committees and neither bill is likely to receive further consideration, but if they do, each will likely be part of a larger agreement.

The Governor’s veto of the Unemployment Insurance legislation has yet to be overridden by the legislature.  Since it was a House bill, the first override vote must take place in the House.  Replacing Common Core is the only piece of significant legislation that has moved any closer to passing in the last three weeks, as the Senate approved the conference report Thursday.  The House has yet to act on the legislation.

Key priorities linger as end of session approaches – WRAL

Three Pending Bills Remain In The General Assembly As The End Of Session Nears – WUNC

Common Core

The Senate Thursday voted 33-12 to adopt the conference report to S812 which would replace Common Core with North Carolina specific standards for education.  The bill would enlist a commission to craft new education standards for K-12 in North Carolina.  The conference report was closer to the Senate version.  Rather than repealing all of Common Core and disallowing any of its pieces like the House version, the conference report would let the commission keep pieces they determine beneficial along with the newly crafted standards.  Among the proponents of keeping the current Common Core standards in place are Governor McCrory and the NC Chamber of Commerce.  The House will likely accept the conference report next week and if so, the legislation will be sent to the Governor.

Senate adopts Common Core repeal bill – WRAL

In Other Words…

The NC Department of Health and Human Services Chief Information Officer, Joe Cooper, wentOn the Record with WRAL last weekend to discuss the embattled NC TRACKS program.  Click here to watch the segment.

The News & Observer released a series, Critical Condition: The Trouble with Medicaid this past weekend.  A link to parts of the series can be found below:

Medicaid: Is 'broken' a bad rap?

'We can't stand up for ourselves'

Legislators battle over Medicaid spending

Medicaid agency has been perennial headache