Last week was the most difficult week of my short legislative career. On Monday, we were planning a committee hearing on the Senate’s coal ash bill. On Tuesday morning, we thought we’d have that hearing and also take up a House coal ash bill, and by Tuesday afternoon the marching orders were to pass a coal ash bill by the end of the week.
What looked to be a relatively easy week turned out to be a very difficult one. The House passed its bill as a substitute for the Senate bill by a vote of 94-16, and the House substitute bill is now back with the Senate.
While Senate Bill 729 [Coal Ash Management Act of 2014] has now passed both chambers, the bills passed by each chamber are different in some respects. Those differences will have to be reconciled by a conference committee, and I expect Senator Apodaca and I will both serve on the conference committee since we were the floor leaders on the respective bills in each house.
In anticipation of the conference, I met with environmental leaders yesterday and have solicited input from other interested parties, including Duke Energy and the NC Department of Environment & Natural Resources. While I’d like to talk about the differences between the two bills, with the conference looming, the better tack is to wait to get final agreement on a bill before getting way down in the weeds.
So that leaves the budget.
House budget conferees were asked to return to Raleigh this week, even though most House Members were given the week off. Last year, the way this worked was that the senior House and Senate Appropriations Chairs, otherwise known as the “big chairs,” established “targets” for the various subject matter subcommittees. For example, the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation was given a number that it had to match; it couldn’t recommend spending higher than the target. So, the education subcommittee, the health and human services subcommittee, the justice and public safety subcommittee and the other four committees each had targets, and the House members and Senators who chaired each of those subcommittees negotiated and compromised and ultimately submitted their recommendations to the big chairs.
The big chairs then cobbled all the pieces together, addressed some overarching issues, like teacher salaries, cost-of-living adjustments for retirees and capital spending, and then recommended a budget. That budget was debated and passed by both houses and went on to Governor McCrory for his signature.
This year, the process hasn’t been the same. Last year, the big chairs set the targets and sent us off to resolve a myriad of small issues, and then they resolved the big issues.This year, the subcommittee chairs didn’t initially get targets. Rather, the big chairs started first by trying to resolve some of the big issues.
The change in the process makes sense if one understands just how different the issues are this year from the ones we addressed last year. Last year, it made sense to have the subcommittee chairs resolve most of the details, leaving the big issues to be resolved at the end. This year, that made no sense since so many of the smaller issues depend on resolution of the big issues.
For example, last year it seemed that deciding spending levels for textbooks, teaching assistants, and assorted other education budget line items needed to be resolved before the big chairs could determine whether money was available for teacher pay raises. This year, a teacher pay raise is one of the major issues, but it is also an issue that was tied directly to career status (otherwise sometimes called “tenure”) in the Senate budget. Moreover, the House education budget relied on more lottery revenues than the Senate budget, and the House and Senate projections of Medicaid and other health and human services costs were significantly different.Thus, the big chairs have to resolve some larger issues, before they can establish targets and before sending us off to negotiate the budget details.
Last week, while I was preoccupied by the coal ash issues, the big chairs substantially resolved their differences on Medicaid and similar cost projections. This week, the focus was on teacher pay. Yesterday, the Senate made its case for an 11% teacher pay raise and untied its salary proposal from the teacher tenure issue.The House responded by bringing in school superintendents and other educators to reinforce the House’s position that teacher pay raises should not result in cuts funding for teacher assistants.
The Senate exploded over this tact and Senate conferees walked out. After the superintendents and teachers finished, the Senate conferees returned to a pretty tense budget meeting.Negotiations will continue this afternoon.
Meanwhile, enough progress has been made to allow five of the seven subcommittees to begin work after being given targets by the big chairs. So Senate and House conferees are working on transportation funding, public safety funding, technology funding, environmental funding, and general government funding.What is missing is the go-ahead on health and human services (HHS) and on education. For me and Senator Apodaca, that means we’re waiting for our targets. Until the big chairs resolve some big issues and untangle the issues as between HHS and education funding, we don’t have much we can do.
So when is it going to end? I have no idea.
If the big budget issues aren’t resolved quickly in the next day or two, we could be looking at another two full weeks—or even more. If these issues are resolved in the next day or two, it is possible that we could then move quickly and pass a budget next week. After that, it shouldn’t take long to complete work on all of the other bills that are awaiting action, including regulatory reform bills and the coal ash bill.
Of course, there are other bills of interest to my constituents.For example, there is a lot of interest in the autism bill, HB498 [Autism Health Insurance Coverage], but it isn’t at all clear whether the Senate will take up that bill.
The only thing that is clear to me is that I’ve got several more newsletters to do… on the budget, on coal ash legislation, and on other legislation that passes in the waning days of what could soon be a long, “Short Session.”