The North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh. File photo by Angie Newsome/Carolina Public Press

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Proposed House ‘mini-budget’ wouldn’t include WNC crime lab funding

UPDATE: The state Senate rejected the “mini-budget” proposal on Monday.

North Carolina’s fiscal year ends tonight, but not the world (hopefully).

There is, after all, a state budget already passed for fiscal year 2015. It was signed into law last July.

So, technically, the budget-related standoff in Raleigh between the House and Senate is over how to adjust what’s already on the books. Given that, so far, the conference committee appointees for the two sides have only met once — and then only briefly to talk through a wide range of differences, including teacher pay and Medicaid spending — the plan passed last year seems likely to take effect at midnight.

But there’s a lot still to discuss. The second-year budget takes into account new projections for revenue, Medicaid costs and enrollment growth in schools and the university system. Given the amount of budget-related changes enacted last year, there’s little doubt the budget is sorely in need of adjusting.

However, guessing when an agreement will arrive became more difficult last week as both sides seemed to harden their positions.

House passes mini-budget

Last Tuesday, with members of the state Senate noticeably absent, House leaders and Gov. Pat McCrory gathered at the Executive Mansion to reveal an updated teacher pay plan.

Not long after, state House budget writers revealed a new mini-budget — a stripped-down collection of provisions including plans to raise teacher pay, to offer state employees a $1,000 raise and to fund coal ash monitoring and oversight. The rest of the state budget enacted last year would stay in place.

Under the House plan, which has little chance of passing the Senate as is, Western North Carolina projects such as authorization for bonds to build the new Western Crime Lab and any other additions not named in last year’s budget would not be funded. They would either have to be added to the new House plan or in a separate bill.

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The mini-budget sped though the House, while Senate leaders picked the deal apart.

Hendersonville Republican Sen. Tom Apodaca feigned hurt over the coziness of the House and McCrory, telling the Associated Press that “anytime you don’t get invited to a particular party, you get a little hurt.”

The acrimony spilled over into a tense meeting Thursday morning, where state budget director Art Pope and his staff gave a lengthy explanation of Medicaid cost projections to a highly skeptical Senate Appropriations Committee.

The House budget and projections by the governor’s office are more than $200 million less than the Senate’s, a major hurdle to getting to a deal.

At the meeting, Sen. Ralph Hise, R-McDowell, said he had a hard time believing the numbers, and he said totals he got from health care providers on billings didn’t match Pope’s predictions.

Pope said the Senate’s insistence on budgeting the extra money for Medicaid comes at a price elsewhere, pointing out the Senate budget cut to about 7,000 teaching assistant positions next year.

“The cost in the Senate plan,” Pope said, “is firing teaching assistants.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the short session agenda chugs on.

Coal ash bill moves ahead

A comprehensive coal ash bill, among the top priorities for both chambers, was approved by the Senate 45-0.

The bill, a rewrite of a plan submitted by McCrory, concentrates on cleanup at four sites — including ponds at the Asheville power station — and sets up a new Coal Ash Management Commission to prioritize cleanup and plans for the other 10 sites.

Environmental organizations praised the bill as a step in the right direction. However, they said it still leaves open the prospect that some of the sites won’t be cleaned up but will instead be capped and allowed to remain in place.

The state chapter of the Sierra Club released a statement after the vote applauding the addition of a timetable in the Senate plan and calling for the House to add tougher language to prevent groundwater contamination.

“The Senate has done a good job of setting out a clear timeline for coal ash clean up in their bill and holding strong on their proposal for a 5- to 15-year clean up schedule despite complaints from Duke Energy,” the statement said. “We hope the House will clearly address how to protect communities near ‘low risk’ sites that are not appropriate for capping in place because of proximity of coal ash to groundwater or surface water sources. This is one of the most critical issues for the House to address.”

During the debate, concerns over other sites not on the priority list put Apodaca, the bill’s chief proponent, in the uncomfortable position of defending the decision to put Asheville on the list while fighting off amendments from senators to guarantee sites in their districts get similar treatment.

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“I think every one of us feel our project should be cleaned up immediately,” he told his colleagues. “But we can’t. We just can’t clean every one of them up. So we have to be prudent, we have to be pragmatic and go after the ones that are the most dangerous first.”

Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, offered an amendment to add ponds at Rutherford County’s Duke Energy’s Cliffside plant among the top priorities.

Van Duyn said tests of the contamination from the ponds at Cliffside showed the same levels of some pollutants as those at Asheville.

“Clearly, Cliffside needs to be added to that list,” she said during debate. “I don’t know how many ponds should be on the list, but the ponds that are dangerous should be included.”

The amendment failed 13-32.

The bill now goes to the House but has yet to be scheduled for committee discussions.

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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