The last week of the so-called “Long Session” of the General Assembly involved many long days and nights. Ultimately, the only thing the General Assembly has to do is pass a budget, and when that was completed the session quickly came to a close. While steady progress was made on a host of bills during the six month session, it seems that most of the legislative activity occurred in the closing weeks of the session.
The final budget, Senate Bill 402 (The Appropriations Act of 20130, appropriates $20.6 billion for the current fiscal year, and $21.0 billion for the next fiscal year. This represents a less than 1% increase from last year’s adjusted budget. In other words, despite what you may have heard about devastating budget cuts, the reality is that the overall budget was quite similar to last session’s budget. However, that doesn’t mean there were not significant changes which included:
- Increased Savings and Reserves. Transfers $269.7 million to the Savings Reserve Account–this fund is intended to cover major unexpected expenses—everything from damages caused by natural disasters to unanticipated expenses, like Medicaid expenses in recent years. Also transfers $162.7 million to the Repairs and Renovations Account.
- Full Funding of Health and Pension Plans. Both the State Health Plan and the State Pension Funds are fully funded under the current budget–no accounting tricks.
- Elimination of Flex Cuts for Local Schools. For the past five years, local school boards have had to make cuts and give back a percentage of the funds they receive from the State. These cuts were called “Flex Cuts,” but they were totally eliminated in the current budget.
- Addressed NC Rural Center Abuses. Following press coverage of significant problems at the agency that funded rural economic development, the budget defunds the NC Rural Center and establishes a new division within the Commerce Department to address the economic development needs in rural North Carolina.
While the budget did not provide a pay raise for teachers and state employees, what was not noted by many commentators was that the budget did include a reserve for future salary adjustments for teachers and state employees. At several points over the past few years, the State has had to add several million dollars for spiraling Medicaid costs, and the legislature again faced another “Medicaid surprise” that took pay raises off the table in the first year of the two year budget. If there isn’t another surprise, House leaders have said that pay raises will be their top priority in the “Short Session” next year. (Note: Since most of the criticism of the budget has focused on funding of education and since I am one of the co-chairs of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee, I’m going to more fully discuss the funding of education in a future General Assembly Bulletin.)
Perhaps the most baffling thing for constituents is figuring out how something becomes law. One of the best examples of the complicated process is following the road to passage of House Bill 74 (The Regulatory Reform Act of 2013). The final bill was actually a combination of three different bills that worked their way through the General Assembly. It culminated into a 59-page bill with 61 different provisions dealing with a range of big issues like how state regulations are enacted and periodically reviewed and a range of small issues relating to regulating fraternities and sororities, bed and breakfasts, billboards, disposal of scrap tires among other things.
As a legislator it is difficult to decide whether to support such a bill because the legislation ultimately includes many noncontroversial provisions and provisions that are clearly good but also includes provisions that one might find objectionable. One of the three bills that ultimately became HB74 was a bill I cosponsored, and I worked closely with the primary sponsor of this legislation, Representative Tim Moffitt (R-Buncombe), in drafting sections of the bill. For example, Rep. Moffitt offered an amendment to his bill on the House floor relating to preemption of local ordinances that I largely wrote, and he also accepted an amendment I put forth during floor debate of the bill on billboards. Ultimately, the bill passed by a vote of 78-34, but without my support.
So why didn’t I support the bill?
First, I objected to a provision that eliminated the Mountain Resources Commission, an advisory group that looked at issues affecting the mountain region of the state. Second, I opposed provisions that continued the trend of making it more difficult for local governments to regulate billboards and allowed more tree-cutting by billboard companies. Third, I thought it unwise to prohibit state agencies and community colleges from acquiring property that may have been contaminated without the approval of the Council of State (the Governor, Lt. Governor, and elected cabinet members). Fourth, I felt there was a better solution relating to a fairly technical issue involving “compliance boundaries” for coal ash ponds than the one mandated in the bill. Fifth, without any consideration by any House committee, the final bill included provisions that made it easier to site so-called “mega-landfills” in the eastern part of the state.
Additionally, I was disturbed by numerous provisions in the bill that involved the legislature actually enacting regulations. It seems that we’ve made it so difficult recently to enact regulations that, rather than go through an administrative process, state agencies are now simply coming to the legislature to enact otherwise noncontroversial regulations.
This bill is one of only a handful of bills that Governor McCrory has indicated he may veto. Evidently he has some of the same problems I had with the bill relating to billboards and landfills. However, the bill passed by veto-proof majorities in both the House and the Senate, and he may just let the bill become law without his signature since it would be an uphill battle to sustain any veto in the House or the Senate.
As an aside, I had a little fun with this bill on the House floor when it came back from a conference committee with the landfill provisions added. These provisions were not in the versions of the bill that passed both the House and the Senate but were taken from another bill that had passed the Senate but had not been considered in the House. When debate started, I objected to consideration of the bill without House committee consideration, citing a House rule. Initially, the Speaker ruled that the bill was properly in order but, when I read the full rule on the floor, the Speaker reversed his earlier ruling and pulled the bill from the calendar. Subsequently, I removed my objection to hearing the bill, but only after getting an assurance of full debate on the bill. In other words, there would be no motion to cut off debate as had been done when the bill was earlier considered in the House.
Many other important bills were considered by the legislature in its waning days, including bills relating to abortion, Voter ID, election laws, and guns. Over the coming weeks, I’ll summarize other bills that were considered before the legislature adjourned.