Also in discussion: Boone’s ETJ authority
After a week shaking down the differences in the Senate and House versions of the 2014 budget, both chambers appointed conferees to get to a final agreement and close out the short session.
The final target — about $21.1 billion — is the same, but big differences remain on Medicaid and teacher pay.
Legislators from Western North Carolina on the list of conferees include Reps. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, and Roger West, R-Cherokee. On the Senate side, Sens. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, Ralph Hise, R-McDowell, and Dan Soucek, R-Watauga, are a part of the group.
In his weekly letter to constituents, McGrady said a pick up in floor activity and the budget talks are signs that the session could be wrapping up soon. But he pointed out that there are sill some wide gaps between the House and Senate — and not just over numbers.
He said a key part of the negotiation will rest on how the teacher pay issue is resolved. He said the House does not like the way the Senate tied pay raises to tenure, requiring teachers to give up tenure rights to get their extra pay.
“Sounds like a bribe to me,” McGrady noted.
This year’s budget discussion may also see a little more daylight than usual.
Apodaca, one of the Senate’s main negotiators, said recently the Senate may be willing to conduct some of the negotiations in the open. Over the weekend, he told The Charlotte Observer that the Senate was leaning toward opening up the meetings of the conference committee, which are traditionally closed-door affairs. Apodaca said he thought more openness would help speed up the process.
Apodaca also made news last week after he suggested using the legislature’s subpoena powers to try to get a clearer estimate of the Medicaid shortfall for this year and cost projections for next year.
The comments came after representatives of the student budget office and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services were no-shows at a committee hearing on Medicaid projections. During the hearing, legislators were told that new technology systems being used by DHHS were still not working well enough to give an accurate breakdown of clients and costs.
The process, described by one senator as “like trying to nail jello to a tree,” has been complicated this year by the new NC FAST and NC TRACKS systems and the jump in enrollment caused by the Affordable Care Act.
State Budget Director Art Pope said he expects to have a new set of projections soon.
Quick turnaround on contamination
Flanked by both McGrady and Rep. Nathan Ramsey, R-Buncombe, Gov. Pat McCrory signed legislation Friday lifting a 1979 law limiting liability on groundwater contamination. The law set a 10-year time limit on contamination suits and was the key reason blocking a suit by Asheville residents against former electronics manufacturer CTS Corp.
The legislation was spurred by a Supreme Court ruling earlier this month that that said the state law prevented residents from suing CTS even though the contamination wasn’t discovered for two decades.
Lawmakers also were concerned that the ruling would prevent families at Camp LeJeune from suing over contamination of drinking water at the base.
“This solution is a testament to our ability in state government to work together in a bipartisan manner to respond swiftly to citizens’ needs,” McCrory said in a press release about the legislation. “I would like to thank the members of the General Assembly for taking quick action to address the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling.”
Local bills up this week
This week, the House takes up a bill filed by Soucek that would eliminate the town of Boone’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, putting land contiguous to the town under Watauga County’s jurisdiction. A similar measure aimed at Boone failed in the House in 2012.
Soucek has asserted that the town has overstepped its authority in imposing regulations on the area, but town officials continue to argue that they need the zoning authority to keep development compatible.
The bill is scheduled to be heard in the House Local Government Committee today (Monday) at 5 p.m.
On Tuesday, the Senate’s local government committee reviews several WNC local bills including: a Yancey County hunting bill, a bill changing the rules for elected official serving on the board of Asheville Regional Airport and deannexation of property near the Hiawasee River in Murphy.