Raleigh, N.C. — It's longstanding tradition for legislative leaders to tuck controversial policy items into the budget. The state Senate's latest plan is no exception.
Several of the policy proposals embedded in the 413-page Senate Bill 402 have already generated not just debate but open dissension with House leaders and Gov. Pat McCrory.
Terminate Special Superior Court judges (Section 18B.12)
This provision would terminate a dozen special Superior Court judge positions appointed by the governor. Business Court judges would be exempted.
Championed by Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, the removal of the judges caused a rift between Senate and House leaders that ultimately led to the practical demise of Senate Bill 10, which would have overhauled numerous state boards and commissions.
House leaders opted not to approve the conference committee report on the measure, saying it would undo at least two special judge appointments already made by McCrory.
Remove three turnpike projects from statute (Section 34.19.(hh))
This is the proposal that's left the N.C. Highway 540 "red route" fix in limbo.
When House Bill 10 made it to the Senate, Transportation Budget Chairman Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, inserted language striking three major turnpike projects from state law – the Gaston Connector, the Mid-Currituck Bridge and the Cape Fear Skyway.
Rabon said the three projects had political origins and ought to be put back into the pool of projects competing for Highway Fund dollars. But supporters said the three projects have been in planning stages for years, with millions already spent on them.
The removal of the turnpikes basically nixed the bill's chances for concurrence in the House.
UPDATE: House Bill 817, the Governor's Transportation reform plan which also eliminates the same three projects from statute, passed the House several days ago. So this provision may not be as controversial as House leaders said it would be earlier this year.
End teacher career status (Section 9.6.(f))
This proposal has been a high priority for Senate Education Chairman Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, who has included it in his education reform initiatives for the past two sessions.
The House has already passed its own bipartisan tenure reform proposal that would modify career status for teachers without removing the protection entirely.
Require drug testing for Work First benefits (Section12C.6.(a))
This proposal has already been approved by the Senate as Senate Bill 594. it would require applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds – they're known in North Carolina as Work First benefits – to first pay for testing to prove they're not using controlled substances. If the test is negative, the state would reimburse the applicant for the testing cost.
Supporters said it will help reduce drug abuse in low-income families, but critics said people needy enough to apply for Work First aren't likely to have available cash to pay upfront for drug testing. A similar program in Florida ended up costing, not saving, the state money in the three months it operated until a judge suspended it on constitutional grounds.
McCrory was quick to criticize the elimination of the special Superior Court judges, as well as other provisions of the spending plan.
"We are very pleased the Senate's budget proposal aligns with some of our major priorities and specific goals with jobs, energy, transportation and Medicaid," he said in a statement. "However, there are several areas that need further dialog, as they differ from the budget and policies I have previously laid out."
The governor also took issue with the lack of any salary increase for teachers and state employees, no expansion of the NC Pre-K program for at-risk 4-year-olds, no compensation for victims of the state's former eugenics program, no funding for drug courts and the proposal to shift the State Bureau of Investigation into the Department of Public Safety.
"These differences are still within the general parameters of our goals, and we look forward to working with the Senate and also reviewing the House budget proposal in the coming weeks," McCrory said.
Any or all of the policy proposals could be changed or deleted during Tuesday's full Senate Appropriations Committee meeting, when amendments will be accepted and debated.
The Senate is scheduled to hold its two required floor votes on Senate Bill 402 Wednesday and Thursday. After that, it goes to the House, which will undoubtedly make major revisions to the plan.
After the House passes its version of the bill next month, a conference committee will meet to work out the differences between the plans. Then, both chambers will likely have to vote on the final proposal once again before it goes to McCrory for his signature.