…after Passage of its Budget
The last two weeks were mostly long days and late nights followed by early mornings. Having passed its budget at about 1:00 am last Friday, the House had a relatively easy week this week. Part of the reason for that was the Memorial Day holiday on Monday, but most of it related to the fact that House committees hadn’t generally met last week since legislators were consumed by the budget. In fact, since the House started work on the budget immediately after many bills cleared at the crossover deadline, there just weren’t a lot of bills in the pipeline.
Committees began to gear up towards the end of the week, and the pace will pick up again next week since the House needs to consider Senate bills that made crossover but were placed on hold while the House focused on its budget. While the House was working on its budget, the Senate took action on numerous bills. Now that the Senate is working on the budget, the House will take action on numerous bills.
The Budget. The details of the House budget are broadly available, so it makes no sense to repeat all of the details. What has become clear is that the House budget has not been savaged by the media in the way that more recent budgets have been, and this probably relates to the fact that a budget surplus was projected and rather than needing to make significant cuts, the House was able to provide some across-the-board salary increases for state employees, including teachers. Retirees received a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), and more money was available for education at all levels.
The budget was noteworthy because it garnered the support of two-thirds of the Democrats and three-quarters of the Republicans. Basically, the most liberal and the most conservative members of the House voted against the budget. The liberals complained that the budget didn’t spend enough on a range of different programs and didn’t provide large enough pay raises. The conservatives complained that the budget spent too much on a host of things, with their primary complaints relating to various tax credits.
The loudest criticism of the budget came from the right, complaining that too much money was being spent. Specifically, critics attacked the $40 million set aside for a grant program for film incentives, the extension of the renewable tax credit, the reinstitution of the medical deduction on state income taxes, and several job incentive programs. Depending on how one computes it, critics say the House budget would spend between 4.5% and 6.5% more than the current budget, and critics argued this was just too much of an increase.
Interestingly, the media hasn’t had a lot to say about the budget one way or the other. My suspicion is that editorial writers across the state begrudgingly had to admit that the House’s budget was more positive than negative with pay raises for teachers and state employees, more money for education, no cuts to most social programs, and some needed investment in infrastructure. My further suspicion is that editorial writers didn’t want to comment on the budget until they saw what came out of the Senate and then what was ultimately agreed upon by both chambers.
Adopting a budget is a process, and the process now is with the Senate. Senate leaders have put forward an aggressive schedule that would have their budget approved by mid-June. Thereafter, there are two weeks allocated for negotiations between the House and the Senate with adoption of the budget prior to the end of the fiscal year that ends on June 30th.
Senator Tom Apodaca (R-Henderson) kidded me that now the Senate would have to fix the mistakes made by the House. My response was that we intentionally made some mistakes with the budget so that the Senate would have something to fix, otherwise we would be concerned that the Senate would try to fix some things that we didn’t think needed fixing. The expectation is that the Senate will not include some of the tax provisions that are in the House budget. Senators seem committed to making cuts in total spending, but one wonders whether the Senate will include more tax cuts in its budget package.
In recent years, at least, Senate budgets have included lots of policy in the budget. For example, most of the changes in educational policy over the past four years have come about because of educational policy changes, like summer reading camps and the grading of schools, that were incorporated into the budget. The question is whether the Senate will continue to include significant policy changes in the budget, and many expect that the Senate will now move toward placing health care policy in its budget, primarily related to Medicaid.
Magistrates and Same-Sex Marriage
While the House didn’t take up a lot of bills this week, it spent most of its time on one bill, Senate Bill 2 [Magistrates Recusal for Civil Ceremonies]. The bill would establish procedures by which magistrates could be recused from performing all marriages and assistant and deputy registers of deeds could be recused from issuing all marriage licenses, based upon a sincerely held religious objection. This issue was essentially about whether these officials’ religious views could be accommodated if they didn’t believe in same-sex marriage.
Supporters of accommodating the officials argued that the bill was about religious freedom and the constitutional requirement that employers accommodate employees’ religious views. Opponents argued that the law was unconstitutional in that it discriminates against same-sex couples. They also argued that it created a bad precedent because it could lead to other state employees picking which duties they want to perform and which they want to skip on other contentious issues like abortion.
The vote was 65 to 45 on Second Reading, with all Democrats but one voting against the bill and with all but five Republicans voting for the bill. I voted “aye,” but with some reservations. My primary reservation was that this entire debate was unnecessary. Had the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) simply accommodated state employees, the legislature wouldn’t have been called on to address the issue. Everyone seemed to concede that it would have been a fairly easy matter to accommodate magistrates or assistant or deputy registers of deeds who objected to gay marriage on religious grounds. I hate battles over issues that could be easily resolved.
One of my colleagues, Representative Rob Bryan (R-Mecklenburg), gave a good example of why we probably shouldn’t have needed to deal with this issue. He said that if the District Attorney had a great assistant district attorney who had a moral issue with the death penalty, the DA wouldn’t fire the assistant DA because the DA couldn’t handle a death penalty case. Rather, the DA would simply have that assistant DA not handle death penalty cases. He said the AOC should have simply accommodated magistrates and not threatened their jobs.
I also hate the continuing partisan warfare over a host of social issues — abortion, guns, same-sex marriage, among others. We’ve done a lot over the past four years on those issues, but social conservatives seem intent upon continuing to push for more while social liberals seem to get hysterical over even minor changes to the law. I’m guessing we’ll have a similarly politically-charged debate over gun rights and abortion rights in the coming weeks.
Senator Apodaca introduced the Mountain Energy Act of 2015 [Senate Bill 716] to facilitate the conversion of the coal-fired power plant in south Buncombe County to natural gas. The bill basically expedites consideration of the project by the North Carolina Utilities Commission while changing the provisions of the recently-passed coal ash law to provide Duke Energy with the flexibility of moving to natural gas before it stops producing wet coal ash. The schedule of the coal ash cleanup is pushed back to allow Duke Energy to work on making the conversion from coal.
The bill was introduced on Tuesday of last week, and cleared the Senate unanimously two days later. Yesterday, the bill was referred to the House Public Utilities Committee, and it is expected the House will take up the bill next week. Assuming that the bill clears the House next week, it will have passed in near record time. Senator Apodaca has asked me to handle the bill both in committee and on the floor.
Senator Apodaca’s autism bill, SB676 [Autism Health Insurance Coverage], was also referred to a House committee this week. It is expected that the bill will be heard by the House Insurance Committee next week, and again Senator Apodaca has asked me to handle the bill in the House while the Senate works on the budget.
My autism bill, HB646 [Insurance Coverage for Autism Treatment], is similar to the Senate bill in that it provides for an insurance mandate for autism, but the two bills are different in their coverage. While I’ll handle the Apodaca bill, I’ll substitute the House bill for the Senate bill in committee (with Senator Apodaca’s knowledge), and then the Senate will not concur with the bill that the House passes. That will mean that the Senate and House conferees will meet to iron out the differences, and the expectation would be that Senator Apodaca and I would lead our respective negotiating teams.
Over the coming two weeks, while the Senate works on its budget, the House will play catch-up. The Senate passed hundreds of bills prior to crossover, and the House now needs to take action on some number of those before the House and the Senate begin negotiations on their respective budget plans.
The big issue is likely to be Medicaid reform, but as already referenced, the debate between conflicting visions of what that means may play out when the Senate passes its budget, since neither the House nor the Senate has taken up the issue, although bills are pending that could be considered. Even during the House’s budget deliberations, some House members and some senators were talking about Medicaid reform, and everyone expects some action on Medicaid issues, potentially with action on related issues like certificate-of-need reform.