It’s mid-October and the legislature is back after a short cooling off period. Leaving town ten days ago, the palpable tension caused by a snap vote to override the Governor’s veto of the budget permeated the legislature. While the House overrode the veto, Senate leadership’s effort to do the same has been complicated by the way things went down in the House. The conventional wisdom is that there will be no Senate override. Of course, that was the conventional wisdom before the House successfully overrode the veto.
With the budget in limbo, both chambers are proceeding with a series of mini-budget bills — essentially small parts of the vetoed budget run as separate bills. In recent weeks, the legislature has passed bills to fund transportation, the Raise-the-Age law, and raises for state employees, among other things. The mini-budgets haven’t included any of the harder issues involving the education, human services and capital budgets that were the reasons Governor Cooper gave for vetoing the budget.
On the agenda for this or next week in the House is a mini-budget for salary increases for teachers, instructional support personnel and assistant principals based on years of experience along with pay raises for principals consistent with the vetoed budget, House Bill 377 [Teacher Step Act]. A mini-budget to provide pay raises for UNC and Community College employees as well as the retiree 1% cost-of-living increase is also moving along with a mini-budget to fund the Department of Information Technology and information technology projects across state government: HB231 [UNC & Comm. Coll. Pay/Retiree Bonus] and HB398 [Info. Tech. Budget/2019-2021 Biennium] respectively.
During the break, staff worked on some of the larger mini-budget bills, essentially free-standing bills to fund the other state departments, including the Department of Public Instruction, the Department of Agriculture & Consumer Affairs, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health and Human Services among others. If the veto isn’t overridden, it is reasonable to expect some of these budgets will move, but it would be unreasonable to expect budgets relating to education, health and human services or capital projects will move since passage of these bills would likely draw more gubernatorial vetoes that couldn’t be overridden.
Most of my constituents have no idea what is going on. Recalling the recent partial shutdown of the federal government when Congress and President Trump were unable to reach an agreement on a budget, my constituents assume without a statewide shutdown, we have a budget in place for the current fiscal year and to some extent they are right. Without an approved budget, the state budget in effect is last year’s budget with respect to all recurring funding. Thus, teachers, college professors, state highway patrol officers, prison guards, and DOT personnel continued to get paid even after the veto. Under NC law, much of the pain of a budget impasse isn’t felt — at least not initially. Moreover, passage of the mini-budgets will relieve some of the pain since some range of workers will receive the raises included in the vetoed budget bill. For example, if HB377 passes in its current form, teachers, assistant principals, principals and instructional support personnel will get raises. Maybe they aren’t what Governor Cooper proposed or all of what would have occurred if the full budget was in effect, but they are still raises—sometimes substantial raises.
With no apparent shutting down of state services, the average constituent probably doesn’t feel much impact from the budget impasse. However, some people do. Having recently met with the Department of Social Services board in Henderson County, I know they can feel the pinch caused by an increase in caseloads resulting from an increasing population without an increase in workers. Local governments felt the impact when none of them were awarded grants by the boards of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund or the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund for recreation and water quality protection. There are substantial increases in funding for both of those trust funds in the vetoed budget. It is likely that some of them would have received grants, were the veto overridden.
A local non-profit, Muddy Sneakers, is impacted by the budget impasse. Muddy Sneakers was due to get recurring monies to continue the expansion of its program across the state, but its current funding is with non-recurring monies and no non-recurring monies are part of the stop-gap funding. One of the more peculiar funding issues relates to Western Carolina University. It has an aging power plant, and the legislature funded half of the costs of replacing it in last year’s budget with the other half included in this year’s budget. Well, those are non-recurring funds — one-time funding. The other half of funds to replace the power plant aren’t available yet.
Anyone who says they know how the budget impasse will be resolved is probably kidding themselves. I have no sense there is a resolution in sight.
Since we’re still in session, we’re also going about work on other bills that would have likely waited until the Short Session next year. For example, most of my time is being spent putting together another disaster relief package. The Cooper Administration has asked for additional funding and, rather than wait on that, House leadership has asked me to start working on another package, one that will finish up most work related to Hurricanes Matthew, Florence and Michael and begin work on Hurricane Dorian. Another project is potential funding for the Department of Transportation to ease its cash flow problems. The Department recently announced it was rolling back the start dates for various transportation projects due to cash flow issues caused, in part, by expenses related to hurricane damage to roads and bridges. Many legislators would like to keep construction projects on track so various bills are being prepared to address this issue.
What makes things difficult is that close coordination with the Senate is required. There is no point in the House spending a lot of time on a disaster relief package or some bill to address DOT’s cash flow issue if the Senate isn’t prepared to work on that issue and generally agree on a common approach to the issue. So before the mini-budgets move or before significant work is done on substantive legislation, the lead sponsors of legislation need to engage with their Senate counterparts.
The two substantive bills that have been worked on at great length that are still ripe for consideration are Senate Bill 315 [NC Farm Act of 2019] and SB559 [Storm Securitization/Alt. Rates]. The former bill is a broad, agricultural regulatory reform bill that has gotten hung up over a smokeable hemp provision in the bill. The latter bill is usually referred to as the Duke Energy bill, and it has drawn fire from a strange mix of opponents including consumer advocates, large manufacturers, and environmental organizations. I’m generally supportive of the Farm Bill and oppose the Duke Energy bill.
One of the biggest unknowns affecting the session is the pending redistricting lawsuits, one of which has already caused the legislature to redraw legislative maps for the upcoming election. The legislature is awaiting a decision on its most recent effort at drawing maps.
One of the primary reasons I ran for another term was to come back to hopefully change the way the state does redistricting of congressional and legislative seats. With the next census looming, this is the session the legislature needs to make changes in how it redistricts. Putting aside the legal issues, my view is that partisan redistricting (usually referred to as gerrymandering) should not be allowed. My expectation last year was one or more courts could outlaw partisan redistricting, and the most likely time for the legislature to take up the issue was immediately before the next census, perhaps when no one was sure which party would be responsible for doing redistricting.
While the U.S. Supreme Court ducked ruling on North Carolina’s redistricting process, the conventional wisdom is that the NC Supreme Court isn’t likely to duck the issue. If that is true, the legislature should take action to resolve the issue before the courts do.
This week, Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) who chairs the House Redistricting Committee scheduled a meeting of his committee to discuss various redistricting bills, including HB69 [Nonpartisan Redistricting Commission] and HB140 [The Fair Act] — bills on which I’m a primary cosponsor. These bills and others seek to do away with partisan redistricting. The last hearing on any nonpartisan redistricting bill occurred in 2011, and even though the committee will not mark-up a bill at this time, the hearing signals a willingness to consider the options.
While I might have my preferences when it comes to how we might change our redistricting process, at this point, my focus is keeping Republicans and Democrats together. Working with Rep. Robert Reives (D-Chatham), the Deputy Democratic Leader, we’ve laid out two ways of potentially addressing the issue. No redistricting legislation is going to pass unless it has strong bipartisan support, and our effort is to keep Members focused on the goal and try to keep them from opposing bills before they understand all of their options.
There is no Senate strategy at this time because, if a bill is moving in the House, it is probably only moving because lawyers advising House leaders on redistricting have pointed out the risks involved in the litigation. Those same lawyers are advising Senate leaders.
The President Pro Tem of the Senate, Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) has stated that the Senate will go home after next week. It isn’t clear exactly what that means, but most folks think it means we’ll be taking some time off before coming back to run some more mini-budget bills. No one seems to think that we’ll just pack up our bags and go home to only return for a Short Session next year. In other words, we may take a recess to a date sometime in the coming weeks or months, but before the end of the year. That schedule could be influenced by whatever decision is rendered by the court considering the active redistricting case.