Three weeks ago, I was surprised when told that the House would take up coal ash legislation, on which I had been working, and would pass it by the end of the week. While happy to have the legislation moving, it was stressful to have it moving so quickly. However, I was told that the bill was moving in anticipation of finishing work on the budget and the end of the session.
Well, what happened? The House passed the coal ash bill, but there was little progress on the budget. Legislators are still in Raleigh.
Following the failure to reach agreement on the budget, the Senate slowed down the flow of bills to the floor, and the House held skeleton, no-vote sessions. Most House Members headed home as budget negotiations continued between House and Senate appropriators. Those of us working on the education and human services budgets, while still in Raleigh, were in limbo until senior appropriation chairs resolved issues around teacher salaries and some human services issues.
Most people understand that the hold-up is passage of a budget. That is technically incorrect. The legislature adopted a two-year budget last year, and it isn’t necessary for us to adopt a budget this year. However, things change, specifically revenues and spending priorities change, and typically the legislature amends its two-year budget during the Short Session. That is really what is being debated.
Governor McCrory and legislative leaders committed to raising the starting pay for teachers. They’ve also committed to pay raises for all teachers and state employees. Those commitments cannot be honored unless the legislature amends its earlier budget to provide for such pay raises.
The House made another offer late last week to break the deadlock between the two chambers. Previously, the House was proposing a 6% pay raise, and the Senate was proposing an 8% pay raise. Since North Carolina can’t just print money like the federal government can, if the House agrees to the Senate’s pay scale, some number of cuts has to be made in other portions of the budget to fund the higher pay raise. One of the sticking points is that the Senate proposes to cut funds for Teaching Assistants—a cut that the House is unwilling to make.
Meanwhile, nothing much happened on the coal ash bill. The Senate delayed formally deciding whether to concur in the House’s coal ash bill and when it did vote to “not concur” it didn’t appoint conferees. In other words, there was initially nothing to negotiate and then no one with whom to negotiate.
On coal ash, my expectation was always that we’d continue to work on the legislation in a conference committee. In other words, the Senate would vote to not concur in the House’s bill. The coal ash issue is complex, and both the Senate and the House wanted to continue to refine the legislation. What I didn’t expect were the delays, but it seems that everything slowed down for budget negotiations.
In terms of legislative history, the Short Session of the General Assembly often ends in July or August, but the expectation was that this session would end in June. Thus, it is the failure to meet expectations that is making people irritable.
Last week, I arrived in Raleigh not sure when I’d be going home, and this week it has happened again. However, the Senate has now appointed conferees on the coal ash bill with, not unexpectedly, Sen. Tom Apodaca leading the Senate delegation. My hope is that, even if little progress is made on the budget, that Sen. Apodaca and I can resolve differences between the Senate and House coal ash bills in the coming week.