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

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The wait for a final agreement on the state budget, especially for teaching assistants and anyone with a job on the line, has been agonizingly long.

The budget overtime in Raleigh, 65 days and counting, can no longer be described as one of average length. Now in triple overtime after the passing a third continuing resolution to fund the government, legislators are hedging their promises of a conclusion by Sept. 18.

“Do I think we’ll get there? Yes,” Sen. Ralph  Hise, R-Mitchell, said, “but if you asked me to put a timeline on it, I wouldn’t.”

There’s almost daily of evidence of movement, but big policy and tax decisions, on which much of the final numbers rely, have yet to fall.

Some legislators are long past impatient for the year to end.

“It’s moving finally, but at a slow pace,” Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, said after a brief Senate session on Tuesday. “I would love to stay in the mountains and not come back to Raleigh.”

He said the education budget, including the question of money for teaching assistants, and other parts of the $21.74 billion spending plan are coming together.

But some sections of a final deal are still contingent on policy changes proposed through separate bills.

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Last month, to get the stalled budget talks moving, provisions on Medicaid reform and a package of tax changes and economic incentives were taken out of the budget and turned into separate bills.

While that allowed for progress in the negotiations, without a final decision on the changes, key chunks of the budget can’t be finalized.

Hise, who is working on the Health and Human Services budget, said the impact of policy changes are part of the hold up in the HHS budget.

“We’ve got a significant hole to agree to before we get to our target,” Hise said. Both chambers made a commitment to reform the Medicaid system, he said, but the sequence of changes are a question.

“Some things are moving,” he said. “There’s a weird web of whether Medicaid reform moves, how the budget moves and how the two are intertwined.”

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, one of the four main appropriations chairs and a lead negotiator in the budget conference, said the Medicaid changes and the budget are moving on parallel tracks. He added that he expects that a House Medicaid proposal should be ready by the week of Sept. 12.

“You’re not going to be able to pass them at the exact same time,” McGrady said. “But I think everybody here understands that there is a linkage and a commitment to passing a budget and to passing Medicaid reform.”

McGrady said progress on the tax and incentives package, another policy item proposed in separate legislation, was not as clear.

“It sounds like there’s been more movement on the budget side than on the tax side,” he said.

Budget writers may move ahead without a final deal on tax proposal, which include a controversial change in sales tax distribution.

“We need to know, for budget purposes, what the revenue rules are, the tax laws are, but at some point you say there’s not going to be any changes and you go on,” McGrady said.

One certainty, he added, was that lower revenue targets were having an effect throughout the budget.

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McGrady said he reluctantly agreed to a compromise that dropped across the board raises for state employees. Instead, each employee will receive a one-time bonus of $750 near the end of the calendar year.

Another likely change from both the House and Senate proposals is a reduction for conservation and clean water trust funds.

Squeezed in other areas, particularly education, those increases are out of the budget, McGrady said. If additional funds do become available, he said, budget chairs on both sides said they’ll seek to add to add back some of the funding.

“That’s going to be a last-minute item,” he said.

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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