RALEIGH – Legislators get down to the details on finance and budget plans this morning after a busy first day of session that included the introduction of coal ash legislation and Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget proposal.
The short session’s traditional purpose is to adjust the state budget. But, in a heated election year, the General Assembly’s return also brought a return to the same contentious atmosphere seen in last year’s session.
Outside the legislative building on Wednesday, dueling press conferences spread throughout the day. Rev. William Barber and the Moral Monday coalition outlined their goals for the session, including a return to the regular Monday protests starting next week. Not long after, dozens of teachers — some clanging pots and spoons — made their way to the governor’s offices.
Inside, at his press conference prior to the official noon start of the short session, House Speaker Thom Tillis, fresh off a convincing win in the U.S. Senate Republican primary, showed that he was still at least partly in campaign node, offering comparisons to the operations of the House under his leadership to the U.S. Senate under the leadership of Majority Leader Harry Reid. Asked how the extra scrutiny of the Senate race would affect his role as speaker, the Republican from Mecklenburg County said he relished it.
“To me the scrutiny is good, and the reason for that is the enormous success we’ve had over the last three years,” Tillis said. “I want the national media to know what we’ve done in terms of economic recovery.”
Tillis said the session would be short and focused on the budget. He said the top goals would be to put together a package of teacher and employee raises, plugging a $445 million hole in the current year’s budget and readjusting next year’s budget to fix a further projected deficit.
Answering questions related to other North Carolina public policy issues, Tillis said he did not support Medicaid expansion, likening it to putting more money into a failing business. But he hedged on offering his outright support for legislation to immediately eliminate Common Core standards.
Tillis also waded into the first open dispute between the state House and Senate. House lawmakers were mostly no-shows for a string of meetings to review new legislation aimed at restricting the impact of the Affordable Care Act. Tillis said he thought something could be worked out and took the opportunity to underline his concerns about the health care legislation, saying it has had a “devastating impact” and that the state is facing heavy premium increases because of it.
Coal ash bill introduced
Senate President pro tem Phil Berger and Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, introduced a bill within minutes of the session opening that is nearly identical to a plan put out by McCrory in April, a sign that after a rocky start on coal ash proposals, the governor and legislators are starting to collaborate on a final plan.
The bill gives Duke Energy 60 days to come up with closure plans for four critical sites, including the company’s Asheville and Riverbend plants, and that the plans “shall include detailed provisions that ensure all ash in the impoundments will be moved to a lined structural fill, a lined landfill, or an alternative disposition approved by (DENR).”
Republican Henderson County Rep. Chuck McGrady, a former national president of the Sierra Club and one of three House legislators working on a plan, said he has been in daily contact with Apodaca on the bill. He said the House team has forwarded a set of proposal to their Senate legislative counterparts.
McGrady said there’s agreement to close the active coal ash ponds, “de-water” them and begin some kind of remediation process. Anything beyond spelling that out may be difficult in the short time frame. He said he expects the legislature to address both what to do with the ponds in the long term and who will pay for the cleanup in next year’s session.
The coal ash bill and the governor’s new budget proposal also includes roughly $1.4 million for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to fund equipment and 19 new staff positions for coal ash monitoring at all 14 sites statewide.
McCrory proposes budget, WNC related items included
Shortly after the brief, mostly ceremonial opening, McCrory held his first press conference of the legislative season.
Flanked by State Budget Director Art Pope, the governor laid out a $21 billion dollar plan for next year that would give teachers and state employees raises, a much-made promise since last year’s budget and a rarity in Raleigh for several years running.
Teachers would receive an average 2-percent raise and some step increases that would boost the pay of some teachers by as much as 4 percent.
State employees would see a $809 bonus and $101 contribution to their pensions.
The budget proposal also includes a $1.8 million state appropriation to match $1.8 million in federal money for 10 new positions and expansion of the Western Crime Lab’s DNA testing capabilities. The plan also includes $545,900 for improvements to toxicology testing. Other WNC-related items include:
• $1.3 million for demotion of buildings and construction of a new multi-use facility at Balsam Depot in Waynesville;
• $103,000 for expansion of Asheville offices of the N.C. Department of Revenue;
• $100,000 for Rocky Ridge and Stone Mountain trail improvements at DuPont State Forest;
• new Division of Forestry buildings in Swain and Alexander counties; and
• $100,000 for paving improvements at the Western North Carolina Farmers Market.