RALEIGH – The 2014 short session of the North Carolina General Assembly starts Wednesday with the prospect that this year it may indeed be a short one.
With the cost of campaigns rising and legislators under a ban on raising money during session, there’s all the more reason for lawmakers get out of town as quickly as possible. Toss into that mix a couple of wild cards: the speaker of the House is the GOP candidate in a tight U.S. Senate race and the head of the state Senate has a son in a congressional race.
So, short? Yes. But dull? No.
The return of the General Assembly also means the return of Moral Monday protests, which will likely keep the heat on legislators as they deal with a widening hole in the state budget and as they sort through competing plans on everything from coal ash cleanup to teacher pay.
Here’s a breakdown of what to look for in the weeks ahead:
• State budget — A recent estimate of the shortfall in state revenues shows that legislators will have to find another $455 million to pay for what they’ve already budgeted for this year. Another gap in the Medicaid program is estimated at close to $140 million.
Going forward, the state is looking at a shortfall of similar magnitude in the projections for next year’s budget. We’ll know at least some of the ideas for closing the gap soon as the governor plans to put his budget proposal out quickly, possibly by mid-week.
• McCrory’s pushback — Gov. Pat McCrory says he wants to play a larger role in shaping policy. He told The Charlotte Observer over the weekend that he wanted the be more assertive this session. Part of that, he acknowledged, involves better communication.
Between the General Assembly’s sessions, McCrory’s record was mixed in coordinating with the legislative branch. The teacher pay plan he recently rolled out was done in synch with House and Senate leaders, but his coal ash cleanup proposal blind sided a key environmental committee, which is working on its own plan.
• Teacher and state employee pay — The biggest balancing act of the session will be filling the hole in the budget while delivering on a promise to increase teacher pay. The state has fallen to 47th in average teacher pay, and McCrory and House and Senate leaders are in agreement on an increase. Legislators have gotten an earful in the interim from school boards and county commissioners trying to staunch the flow of teacher resignations.
The governor is pushing for a multi-year boost in pay for starting teachers, and he announced last week he wants a 2 percent, across-the-board raise for veteran teachers.
Both the legislature and the governor have promised some kind of increase for state employees, who haven’t had a significant percentage increase since 2008. So far, McCrory has steered away from increasing pay rates, proposing instead a one-time $1,000 bonus.
• Coal ash — There are three potential coal ash-cleanup bills in the works.
House and Senate Democrats were the first out of the gate, announcing a plan early this year that would require cleanup and removal of ash to a lined landfill at all 33 sites in the state, along with a stipulation that Duke Energy not be allowed to pass the costs on to ratepayers.
The governor was next, announcing a plan in April that would require cleanup at some of the key sites, including Duke’s Asheville plant and its Cliffside plant in Rutherford County. Solutions at other sites would vary from removal to capping the sites in place.
The plan most likely to pass has yet to emerge, but it is in the works, according to Republican Henderson County legislators Sen. Tom Apodaca, who is working on a bill to be introduced in the Senate, and Rep. Chuck McGrady, who is working on language to be included in a package of environmental legislation coming out of the Environmental Review Commission. Most of the details on that bill have yet to be spelled out, but McGrady and Apodaca have both said cleanup at Asheville and Cliffside will be mandated.