Last week was a week of travel. That isn’t usually what legislators do during session, but budget negotiations in Raleigh and a public meeting on Duke Energy’s proposed electric transmission lines in Hendersonville caused me to travel back and forth — twice. After heading back to Raleigh on Sunday, I drove back to Hendersonville on Thursday afternoon only to leave after the public meeting that night to be back in Raleigh for budget talks on Friday and Saturday.
At this moment, I am not sure what my travel plans will be this weekend. With budget negotiations continuing as I write this, the hope is that a deal will be struck before the end of the day necessitating a weekend review of the budget by House and Senate Appropriators. A conference report will have to be filed before either chamber can begin voting on any budget compromise.
In Hendersonville, the primary issue that concerns my constituents is the proposed “Foothills Project” by Duke Energy, and most communications from my constituents have to deal with that issue. In Raleigh, the primary issue is the budget, and most communications from lobbyists and others concern budget-related issues. Funding of teaching assistants and drivers education are among the House’s priorities, but other issues like eugenics compensation payments, changes to the laws governing landfills, or the allocation of assistant district attorneys suddenly become the focus of negotiations. In the end, the leadership of both chambers needs to craft a budget that will garner the support of the majority of the members.
Budget Shifts to the Corner Offices
Most constituents, including my spouse and our friends, can’t understand exactly why it is taking so long to pass a budget. They also have no idea what exactly is being negotiated. It is baffling to many people.
Folks note that Republicans are in the majority in both chambers of the legislature, and that the governor is also a Republican. So doesn’t that mean that it should be easy to reach a compromise? Clearly not.
Developing a budget involves a huge group of people, both legislators and staff, but also lobbyists and constituents who bring their knowledge and expertise to the spending priorities and the details of the budget. These details are spelled out in the “Special Provisions” that specify how money will be spent and also sometimes reflect significant changes in public policy. For example, the budget will likely contain a provision on dredging — how much money will be spent — but it will also involve moving responsibility for funding for dredging from one department (the Department of Environment & Natural Resources) to another (the Department of Transportation) while specifying a wide range of details like how many terminal groins can be built and where some dredging projects will be done.
The budget process is hierarchical. It starts from the bottom up, with subject-matter appropriation committees and then their chairs doing the initial work. Pursuant to ground rules established by the big chairs, the chairs of the various subject-matter committees try to reach agreement on their parts of the budget. From there, it moves up to the so-called “big chairs” who lead the respective House and Senate appropriations committees. Finally, it goes to the leadership, otherwise known as “the corner offices” — the Speaker and the President Pro Tem.
When the House and Senate chairs are not able to reach an agreement on some issues, the differences are pushed up to the big chairs. Additionally, the big chairs or leadership (the Speaker and the President Pro Tem) may disagree with agreements that have been made. The big chairs or leadership can “flag” items for decisions at the next level.
So what has happened over the last several months has been a long series of meetings, first between the subject-matter chairs from both chambers and then between the big chairs from both chambers. When the big chairs can’t agree on some issue, either a spending or policy issue, those disagreements get flagged and get resolved by the Speaker and the President Pro Tem.
My sense is that there have been more issues flagged for negotiation between the Speaker the President Pro Tem this year than in past years. As has been widely reported, decisions with regards to funding Teaching Assistants and Drivers Education were kicked upstairs. While both will clearly be funded, right now there is no agreement on the details of how long that funding will continue.
A whole bunch of other issues have also been kicked upstairs, including whether additional terminal groins will be allowed, funding for body-worn cameras for law enforcement agencies, policy relating to “Read To Achieve,” suspension of the Jordan Lake rules governing soil sedimentation into that lake, laws related to inspection of landfills, and cost-of-living increases for retired state employees. Over 30 different issues ultimately will be decided in talks between House and Senate leadership.
My guess is that a compromise budget will become public on Monday. Under House rules, the House can’t take up the budget until the third day following its filing, so that would mean votes on the budget next Thursday and Friday. The Senate doesn’t have any rule requiring a wait until a vote is taken, so the Senate could vote sometime earlier in the week. The budget deadline is Friday, September 18 and, at this point, I think we will meet that deadline without the need for another Continuing Resolution.
Quickly on the heels of the budget, I expect a Medicaid reform bill will move, since a tentative agreement has been struck on that. There are other conference reports that will likely be filed, while negotiations continue on tax reform, a bond package, and an economic development package that includes incentives. In other words, when the budget passes, one can expect a few more weeks of work before the legislature completes its work for this session.
Transmission Line Decision
Representative Chris Whitmire and I attended the public meeting on the transmission lines last week, along with a representative from Senator Tom Apodaca’s office. With ongoing budget negotiations, both Senator Apodaca and I needed to be in both places at once, but we decided I’d go to the hearing and he’d send a staff member who is a lawyer. Since the public meeting, we’ve met and anticipate having a follow-up discussion with Duke Energy representatives after we’re done with the budget.
Both Henderson County and Hendersonville have passed resolutions on the transmission line proposal. While we’ve received resolutions from a number of local governments, the resolutions passed by Henderson County and Hendersonville are a bit more nuanced than some of the others. Since legislators don’t have the authority to simply stop the transmission lines, resolutions asking us to block the transmission lines are nothing more than a reflection of public sentiment. We understand public sentiment. As of today, I’ve only received one communication from a constituent supportive of the transmission lines while receiving hundreds — probably approaching a thousand — comments opposing the transmission line.
The decision as to whether the transmission line is needed is one that the North Carolina Utilities Commission will make, and the legislators don’t have a role in making that decision. However, legislators agree that we will work on making sure that Duke Energy mitigates the costs of the transmission lines to our constituents if the transmission line is approved.
Right now I’m caught about 270 miles away in Raleigh finishing work on the budget as an Appropriation chair and wrapping up on other legislation, with limited ability to meet with constituents interested in the transmission line issue. However, once the budget is adopted and the legislative session is over, my expectation is that I’ll be meeting with groups of concerned citizens and local officials to ensure that questions get answered and that Duke Energy is doing its best to minimize the damage to our county and residents while providing the best possible service to its customers.