RALEIGH — Whether you agree with the outcomes or not, there’s little argument about the General Assembly’s productivity going up when adjournment is in sight.
Senate and House leaders are promising to wrap up most of the work for this year’s session over the weekend, including final votes on the the $22.34 billion state budget, a bill to replace at-large voting for Asheville City Council with six geographical election districts and a revamped coal-ash bill that could allow some sites to be capped and left in place.
Senators cast their first budget vote early yesterday evening and are expected to hold a final debate and vote this afternoon. The 33-16 vote split along party lines. Western region Republican Sens. Tom Apodaca, Jim Davis and Deanna Ballard voted for the budget report, while Democrat Sen. Terry Van Duyn voted against it.
Apodaca, who is using his clout to push the Asheville redistricting bill, stressed the positives for the city in the budget, including funds for a UNC Asheville land purchase and a collaboration between the UNC School of Medicine and the Mountain Area Health Education Center that would send more medical students to WNC to for their residences.
In debate yesterday, Apodaca pointed out that the two projects would send $10 million in state funding to Asheville.
“Now if you live in Western North Carolina and you vote against this budget, you need to go home and do some ‘splaining,” Apodaca said.
Other major WNC items include $3 million in funding for new restroom and parking facilities at DuPont State Recreational Forest and a provision that would allow the forest to compete with other parks projects in the annual round of grants from the state’s Parks and Recreational Trust Fund.
Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, one of the House’s main budget chairs said the money should help DuPont catch up with growth and be better able to sustain itself going forward.
The House and Senate met each other at midpoint on pay plans for teachers and state employees. House members had insisted on across the board raises and balancing the size of the raises between the teachers and employees. Senators had opted for a major boost for teachers and smaller targeted raises for state employees.
The final package includes an average raise in teacher pay of about 4.7 percent, a 1.5 percent across-the-board raise and a 1/2 percent bonus for state employees, plus an additional pool of funds for merit increases. State retirees would see a one-time 1.6 percent cost of living bonus.
Once passed by the Senate the bill goes to the House.
The state’s fiscal year ends Thursday.
Asheville voting districts
A controversial bill that would replace Asheville’s at-large city council seats with six geographical district seats passed the Senate Monday after a short, acrimonious debate, and is headed to the House.
The bill, pushed by Apodaca, would take effect starting with the 2017 municipal elections. Asheville officials have said they would consider suing to stop the bill from taking effect.
Asheville Democrat Rep. Susan Fisher said she expects the bill will trigger a legal action.
“I can’t imagine it will not will not because they did not consult with the citizens of Asheville at all,” she said, adding she expects there will be attempts to amend the bill in the House.
Apodaca said the move to districts make sense to provide more even distribution of representation. He defended the districts drawn, which are based on 2010 census numbers and creates districts with an ideal population of 13,899 residents.
The city has added more than 5,000 residents since 2010 and is expected to top 90,000 residents in the next two years. New districts would be drawn following the 2020 decennial census that would take population shifts into account. But for the 2017 and 2019 election cycle, the districts drawn by the General Assembly would be in effect.
“It’s just a legitimate map; it’s a beautiful map,” Apodaca said. “The people who live in downtown Asheville don’t like it. The people who live outside downtown Asheville like it.”
One potential amendment in the House would call for a referendum. During committee debate last week Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer urged Senators to include a referendum in the bill.
McGrady said the Senate followed the law in crafting the bill and he will support it.
“I generally support local legislation, and this is a piece of local legislation put forward by a legislator, Sen. Apodaca, who represents the area,” McGrady said in an email response. “I’ve heard the argument as to why districts are necessary, and I’m sympathetic to those arguments. I wish that the city had actually done its own districting.”