Voting Thursday night and again in the wee hours of Friday morning, the House passed its budget. On Thursday, the vote was 82-34, and the Friday vote was 80-31, after 35 amendments were considered on the floor during the two sessions. Earlier in the week, the bill, SB257, was heard in the Finance Committee, the Pensions and Retirement Committee and the Appropriations Committee. The latter committee was the primary forum for making changes in the budget bill with more than 50 amendments offered there. Some number of the amendments were just technical — making changes in the 350 page document, but some of the amendments were efforts to move money from one item to another, e.g. [Amendment A36 regarding reducing monies for Opportunity Scholarships (vouchers)] and others were efforts to change policy, e.g. [Amendment A16 regarding the Jordan Lake Rules].
On the floor, some proposed amendments were ruled out of order by the Speaker and a few amendments were simply tabled without a vote on the substance of the amendment. The latter tactic is used when the majority party is trying to shelter its Members from difficult votes or when the minority party is putting forward amendments without any expectation of passage. Debate on Thursday started in the midafternoon and continued until about 10:30 p.m. Periodically, leadership would cut off debate on an amendment if it became repetitious. If leadership couldn’t “call the question” on some number of amendments, the session may well have gone much longer.
The differences between the House and Senate budgets have been reported in many media reports. See Asheville Citizen-Times articles: NC House make clear budget difference with Senate; Tax cuts in NC House about a third of Senate’s; House gives final OK to budget; Senate talks are next. There hasn’t been a lot of focus on the differences between the two budgets with respect to the impacts for western North Carolina; however, there are a few appropriations decisions that will directly impact western North Carolina.
Western Medical School
One of the big differences is with respect to UNC School of Medicine’s Asheville campus, a joint program between the UNC School of Medicine, other UNC system universities, and the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC). The Senate allocated $8 million in recurring funds in the next fiscal year and over $13 million in recurring funds in the following fiscal years. The House budget didn’t include these appropriations.
Last year, all the monies for the UNC western medical school came from monies held in reserve by the Senate. The appropriation came very late in the process with little or no discussion between the House and the Senate. Since the Senate funded the new medical school with no buy-in from the House last year, it is understandable why the House didn’t fund the medical school in its budget this year.
With the Senate having funded the medical school and the House having provided no new funding, the question of whether there will be continued funding will go to the conference committee appointed by both bodies to resolve the differences between each body’s budgets. Then-Senator Tom Apodaca (R-Henderson) pushed for funding of the western medical school in the last budget cycle, but has since retired. Senator Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell) chairs the Senate Appropriation Committee on Health and Human Services, and is an advocate for the western medical school. Similarly, Rep. Josh Dobson (R-McDowell) believes the medical school should be funded, and he chairs the House Appropriations Committee on Health and Human Services.
However, funding for the medical school is in the education portion of the budget, since the medical school is part of the UNC system. Education appropriators, not Health and Human Services appropriators, will be negotiating this part of the budget. That means that the proponents of the medical school are not the legislators who are conferencing it. With heightened interest in funding K-12 education, some fear the money for the medical school could get cut.
Muddy Sneakers is an environmental education program that works with 5th grade public school students. It takes students out of the classroom to teach science in the field, typically on public lands near the students’ school. The program started in western North Carolina, but an appropriation in the last budget provided for the expansion of the program into counties in the Piedmont of North Carolina.
The Senate budget provided no money for Muddy Sneakers, but the House budget provides $500,000 in recurring funds. As with the medical school funding, conferees appointed by the Senate and the House will have to decide whether Muddy Sneakers is funded.
The House budget provided $10,000 for hemlock restoration initiatives by the NC Forest Service. The Senate provided no monies for the program. The money for the program within the House budget really isn’t enough to continue a program that was funded in the past and which people agree is working. Why is that?
Well, the Department of Agriculture inadvertently didn’t include money for hemlock restoration in its budget request, so the Senate didn’t fund the program. Between the time the Senate passed its budget and the House finished work on its budget, it was learned the request had been dropped. In an effort to salvage the program, I added $10,000 for the program towards the end of drafting the House budget.
Why that amount? It didn’t really matter what amount was added, since there was no money in the Senate budget. All that was needed to be done was for the House to include funding for the program to create a difference between the Senate and House budgets. Any dispute between the two budgets will be conferenced, so my goal in inserting meager funding was simply to create a dispute to allow the funding to be conferenced so that the issue can be resolved later.
Other Budget Items
A similar issue is funding for the Linville River Nursery, a NC Forest Service operation that produces seed trees of various types. The Senate’s budget didn’t include money for the nursery, but the House provided $200,000 nonrecurring in the next two years. Now the House and Senate conferees will have to resolve the issue.
The House funded a new energy production facility at Western Carolina University at $9.5 million, funding which wasn’t specifically included in the Senate budget. Similarly, the House provided building operating expenses for the new Health Sciences building at Appalachian State University. The House also funded a new 200-bed facility next to the Swannanoa Correction Center in Buncombe County to house women who have violated their terms of probation.
There are some other provisions that are likely to be important for western North Carolina, including more funding for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund (PARTF) and the Film and Entertainment Grant Fund. For example, PARTF has been used by local governments to fund county and municipal parks, and DuPont State Recreational Forest is eligible for PARTF funding.
The Conference Committee. As a so-called “Big Chair” of the House Appropriations Committee, I will be among a small group of legislators who will review the recommendations made by various subject-matter appropriations chairs. If the subject-appropriations chairs are able to balance the monies in their parts of the budget and get agreement of the Big Chairs, their recommendations will be included in the budget produced by the Conference Committee. However, items can be “flagged” by the Big Chairs and then resolved by the Big Chairs later in the process.
Some items will not be able to be resolved, and those issues will go to the two corner offices to be resolved by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland). Both Senate and House leaders have reserved some monies to resolve funding differences and to garner support for the budget put forward by the Conference Committee.
The fiscal year ends on June 30, and the goal is to present the budget to Governor Cooper well in advance of that date so the legislature could act if he were to veto the budget. The Senate budget passed on a strict party vote. The House budget garnered bipartisan support, but a majority of Democrats voted against the budget. Assuming all senators and representatives are voting, if there is a veto, 30 votes will be needed in the Senate to override the veto and 72 votes will be needed in the House. Conferees will be mindful of those numbers when cobbling together their budget.
If the legislature doesn’t meet its deadline, there will not be a need for a continuing resolution this year to fund government until a new budget passes. This is a change from past practice. Last year, a law was passed to automatically renew the recurring funding in the current budget in the next fiscal year if no budget is passed before the end of the fiscal year. There will still be pressure to complete a budget, but we wouldn’t have to stop everything and pass a stop-gap measure to keep state government running.
The Senate and House conferees were appointed on Monday and immediately began work. By next weekend, the subject-matter appropriators will have completed their work, and the Big Chairs will have to resolve differences. Any issues outstanding will be left to Berger and Moore to resolve next week. The expectation is the budget will be up for votes by the end of next week.