Education, coal ash top state Senate priorities
Posted May 8, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger calls Gov. Pat McCrory's proposal to raise teacher pay "promising," particularly endorsing a rearrangement of the state's pay scale so that teachers more quickly advance through the salary tables.
But don't look for the legislature to adopt the plan wholesale.
"It is my expectation in adopting a balanced budget we will have the capacity (for) not only what we have promised up to this point, but our expectation is we'll be able to go further," Berger said at a Thursday news conference. "I don't want to say we'll adopt the governor's plan. I think that's something the members will need to go through and review, but I think teacher compensation and addressing a compensation increase for employees is one of those priorities that we have."
What lawmakers have promised so far is a plan that would raise salaries for teachers in their first 10 years of the profession. McCrory's plan, released Wednesday, would build on that by both giving an average 2 percent raise to all teachers, restructure the teacher salary scale and create a system under which teachers with certain advanced degrees or leadership responsibilities could earn more.
McCrory has said he also wants to give a $1,000 raise to all state workers. Berger emphasized that raises for teachers and state workers are on the legislative agenda, but said they may not necessarily take the form prescribed by McCrory.
North Carolina raises and spends $20 billion in state taxes every year, plus billions more in federal tax grants. The main purposes of this year's "short" legislative session, which opens next Wednesday, is to make changes to the budget.
Although there is no hard and fast deadline, lawmakers generally expect to end their work for the year shortly before July 4. In general, lawmakers try to limit the number of issues taken up during sessions that take place in the summer of even-numbed years, often deferring thornier issues until the "long" sessions of odd-numbered years.
The budget generally, and teacher pay specifically, tops the agenda for most legislative leaders this year. With 50 members of the Senate and 120 members of the state House, there are no shortage of ideas and of local priorities and personal hobby-horses that lawmakers will push. However, some priorities are more equal than others, especially when they come from leaders like Berger. Here are five more areas he said will be top of mind when lawmakers return to work this year:
Medicaid: The state's health insurance program for the poor and disabled is a perennial thorn in the side of budget writers, and this year appears to be no exception. Lawmakers say they expect to have to spend between $90 million and $130 million to patch a hole in this year's budget, which means they will also have to budget more for the 2014-15 budget year, which begins on July 1.
"We've made that point in the past that Medicaid has had the tendency to crowd out our ability to do some things," Berger said.
Dealing with that shortfall, and preventing a similar one in the future, will be a significant part of the budget process, he said.
That said, don't expect a major shift in Medicaid budget policy this year. A committee appointed by the governor, Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis recommended the state create accountable care organizations – physician groups that would collect a flat fee to care for Medicaid patients. Berger said that suggestion doesn't go far enough.
"That may very will be something that will have to wait until the longer session in 2015," he said.
Coal ash: The Feb. 2 coal ash spill on the Dan River was "in my back yard – quite literally in my back yard," Berger said.
Lawmakers, he said, would move forward with a bill that not only ensured that Duke Energy cleaned up the Dan River spill but did something to ensure similar incidents don't occur at 13 others locations through North Carolina where the company has coal ash stored in ponds.
"We need to have a solution that ensures coal ash is not going to be a potential problem for our drinking water supplies. That means our rivers, our groundwaters, all of those things," he said.
Taxes: After last year's sweeping tax bill, Berger said he did not expect any sweeping tax changes this year. He and others involved in tax legislation said there would be minor changes and clarifications, but there aren't plans for a new tax push, he said.
Fracking: Expect natural gas exploration and drilling, particularly the use of hydraulic fracturing, to be back on the agenda.
"We want to see North Carolina receive the same kinds of benefits we're seeing in other states in terms of the creation of jobs and the infusion of capital into the economy," Berger said.
Asked if that meant removing the moratorium on hydraulic fracturing now in place, he replied, "I think that would be something that would be beneficial in moving forward."
Regulatory reform: Over the past three years, lawmakers have repeatedly put forward measures they said were aimed at paring back rules and regulations, particularly those that hamper business activity. Last year, for example, lawmakers ordered a review of all regulations currently in place and gave agencies a mechanism to do away with unneeded regulatory rules.
Berger said there would once again be bills in that spirit, but could not say what specific legislation might be proposed.