Last Thursday night, it seemed like we were finally making headway with the budget. The spending targets had been set for the various subject-matter appropriations committees, and each of them was meeting to negotiate their budgets. For example, the House’s Education appropriators were meeting with their Senate counterparts, and the same was true of appropriators dealing with issues like Justice and Public Safety or Transportation.
But after having a productive day on Thursday, meeting late into the night, things slowed down again. While Health and Human Services conferees worked on Friday, the Education conferees starting on Friday couldn’t move forward. Rather than spending the weekend in Raleigh, I headed home on Friday night since none of the committees were ready to report back to the so-called “Big Chairs”—the senior chairs of both the House and Senate Appropriations committees (which includes me).
The hope was that we might get going on Sunday, so after arriving back in Hendersonville very late on Friday night, I was driving back to Raleigh before noon on Sunday in hopes of some progress. And while the House-side chairs met, there were still no committees ready to report. On Monday, the same was true.
While some part of Monday was spent plotting budget strategy with House leaders, most of the day was spent on other issues. Since the budget and Medicaid reform are tied together, I used the lull in the negotiations to come back up to speed on the various issues imbedded in the negotiations over Medicaid reform. I also spent time working on provisions of the regulatory reform bill, HB 44 [Local Government Regulatory Reform Act 2015]. That bill has a peculiar mix of provisions running from riparian buffers to well-drilling to bee-keeping. While others tried to resolve differences on budget issues, I worked with research staff on language to hopefully resolve some issues in House Bill 44 still being discussed.
With Speaker Moore and President Pro Tem Berger meeting today, my hope is that we’ll start negotiating face-to-face again soon. Twice in the last two weeks, I’ve been surprised to see Senate appropriators go public with proposals they’ve put on the table. For example, yesterday it was an announcement that they’d offered to fully fund Teaching Assistants and Drivers Education — two of the House positions that have kept us here until September. Like clockwork, the NC Association of Educators issued a statement voicing support for the Senate’s proposal, and I was left wondering how a provision that was in the House’s budget but left out of the Senate’s budget suddenly became the “Senate’s proposal.”
Oh well, I guess it goes to show that folks shouldn’t take everything they read or hear at face value. The bottom line on the budget discussions is that we went forward on some issues and then went back on some others. We made progress on some issues, and seemed to be continuing the same debate on others. And after we complete work on the budget in the next two-plus weeks, we’ve also got to take up competing economic development proposals, very different tax reform proposals, and Medicaid reform before we go home.
Yesterday was the last day that Duke Energy was taking public comments on its transmission line proposals and I met with a Duke Energy lobbyist to talk about what I’d heard from my constituents. While my constituents sometimes had differences of opinion on what should be given the highest priority in determining any route for the transmission line, there were few constituents ready to just accept Duke Energy’s position that a transmission line is needed. Moreover, not surprisingly, no one voiced support for the project.
With the public meeting scheduled for Thursday at Blue Ridge Community College, I told Duke Energy that their representatives needed to be ready to defend the need for the transmission line. I also told them that they needed to explain, among other things, why the line couldn’t be buried, why the line couldn’t run in existing easements, why NCDOT rights-of-way were not considered for the line, and why public lands, specifically the Green River Game Lands, have been excluded from consideration for the transmission line.
Constituents were divided on what were the most important things for Duke Energy to consider when deciding on a route. People who lived in neighborhoods thought the lines should stay was from people’s houses. Farmers, on the other hand, thought the transmission lines would interfere with their crops, and some farmers who had apple orchards were particularly concerned about whether their orchards would be affected. Many people communicated as to how the natural beauty of the area brought them to the mountains or was what brought new businesses to Henderson County. People in the travel and tourism businesses, including the summer camps, decried the impact transmission lines would have on their properties and businesses.
Duke Energy’s representatives have heard from me and other legislators periodically since they first proposed the transmission lines. My expectation is that I’ll talk to them after the public meeting on Thursday but then will await their proposal and the filing of their application with the NC Utilities Commission. Pursuant to NC General Statute § 62-104 , here is what will then happen:
“(a) The Commission shall schedule a hearing upon each application filed under this Article not more than 120 days after the filing and shall conclude the proceeding as expeditiously as possible. The Commission may, however, extend this time period for substantial cause.
(b) If, after proper notice of the application has been given, no significant protests are filed with the Commission, the Commission may cancel the hearing and decide the case on the basis of the filed record.
(c) The Commission shall issue an order on each application filed under this Article within 60 days of the conclusion of the hearing. The Commission may extend this time period for substantial cause.”
After the hearing on Thursday, I’ll check to find out what the Utilities Commission’s expected timetable is. I have no expectation that the Commission will be canceling any hearing, pursuant to NCGS Section 62-104(b), since it has already received hundreds of comments on the proposed transmission lines in advance of any filing by Duke Energy. Duke Energy has also received thousands of comments in response to its request for input. In other words, my expectation is that there will be significant protests filed with the Commission.