Raleigh, N.C. — The last time the General Assembly's regular session ran this late in the summer, it was because lawmakers needed the time to broker votes to create the state lottery.
This year, lawmakers are spending extra time and money on bills involving the state budget, business recruiting, taxes, Medicaid reform and other, more prosaic measures keeping lawmakers in town past their traditional August adjournment time. The state constitution doesn't require them to wrap up work by any certain date, but lawmakers say they hope to leave town before the end of September.
"A lot of those aren't must dos," Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, said Monday, just before chairing a non-voting "skeleton session" in the Senate.
While lawmakers in the Republican-dominated General Assembly have battled over a number of bills, the budget is the only one that they must get done, Apodaca said.
That said, there are other high-profile measure that have received a lot of time and attention this year. In addition to the budget, many of those bills are intertwined with the state spending plan.
THE BUDGET: While budget negotiators said they cleared several major roadblocks to completing a $21.74 million spending deal in late August, dozens of other items remain unresolved as the calendar turns to September.
Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, the Senate's lead budget writer, said that subcommittees working on spending in the Justice and Public Safety, Natural and Economic Resources and General Government areas had largely reached agreements, although a few decisions remained for high-ranking lawmakers to make. As of Monday, Aug. 31, House and Senate members were still working on the details of the Education and Health and Human Services budgets.
Among the most high-profile issues to be settled are how many teaching assistants will be available to elementary school classrooms and whether the state will continue funding driver's education.
Bill Status: House Bill 97 has been assigned to a conference committee to work out differences between the House and the Senate. In the mean time, the state's third continuing resolution of the year is keeping government running through Sept. 18.
TAXES AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: There isn't a broad new tax reform package in the works, but lawmakers say they hope to build on the 2013 tax reform measure. In particular, Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, said last week that, in addition to already pending cuts to the corporate income tax, lawmakers hope to trim personal income taxes as well.
Economic development and taxes are linked for two reasons. First, many job-luring programs are based on tax rebates. Second, Rucho and many other Republicans philosophically see tax cuts as the best job lures.
Gov. Pat McCrory has been pushing lawmakers to create a venture capital fund, plow more money into the state's Job Development Investment Grant program and reauthorize tax credits for those who restore and reuse historic properties. He has generally backed the House version of House Bill 117, known as the NC Competes Act. Senators, meanwhile, drafted a version of the bill that would reallocate how local sales taxes are distributed in order to help rural counties at the expense of larger ones.
It is likely that some tax policy will end up in the budget, but there are typically some lingering items at the end of every session that wind up in separate bills.
Bill Status: The NC Competes Act has been the main economic development bill debated this session. It has been assigned to a conference committee to work out differences between the House and the Senate. It is the most likely vehicle to carry economic development changes outside of the state budget bill. It's also possible the measure could make adjustments to taxes if those items aren't settled as part of the budget.
BONDS: Lawmakers have been talking for most of this year about whether they would borrow nearly $3 billion – or more – in order to improve roads and build new state buildings. McCrory first proposed the idea as part of his budget. Although top legislative leaders initially balked at the idea of borrowing for transportation needs, House leaders have since warmed up to the idea. Senators have proposed borrowing for parks, state buildings and the like but have said they would rather dedicate annual tax revenue to road building. McCrory had hoped to see a bond vote in November, but lawmakers say a March presidential primary vote is more likely.
Bill Status: The state House sent the Senate House Bill 943, the Connect NC Bond Act, in early August, but senators have parked the measure in their Ways & Means Committee, a panel that rarely meets. It is possible that lawmakers could include a bond package in the budget, pass a separate bill or do nothing this year.
MEDICAID: Members of the General Assembly have been wrangling over how to remake the state's health insurance system for the poor and disabled for years, but earlier this summer said they reached agreement on some basics. The tentative proposal would create a system that relies both on national managed care companies as well as locally created provider-led entities to care for one in five North Carolina residents.
Although negotiators have been dealing with Medicaid as a separate bill, budget negotiators say they need to see the final measure before they can settle the budget because it will influence how much money is spent and when it is spent in Health and Human Services over the next two years.
"In order to get an HHS budget, we're going to need that Medicaid piece," Apodaca said.
Bill Status: House Bill 372 is in a conference committee to work out differences between the House and the Senate.
PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARY: Top leaders in the House and the Senate said this week that they reached an agreement to hold next year's presidential primary on March 15. The measure settles a minor tiff among Republicans who wanted to see the state vote earlier in the year, and therefore have more clout in selecting presidential nominees, and those who don't want to run afoul of national party rules that prohibit jumping ahead of officially sanctioned early-voting states.
House Bill 373 would make North Carolina a winner-take-all state in the Republican contest. It has already cleared the Senate, but House members have yet to take up the compromise measure.
"I had waited to bring it up in order to make sure our caucus understood it," said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, the House Rules Committee chairman and the chamber's leader on election issues.
Lewis said that he has not had time to run through the measure for his fellow GOP members. Once he does, it would likely be subject to a House Rules Committee hearing and then heard on the House floor.
"You may even see it this week," Lewis said on Monday.
Bill Status: House Bill 373 is in the House Rules Committee.
ALSO OF NOTE: Although the budget and maybe one or two related bills are the only ones that top leaders say "must" pass before the end of session, a few other high-profile measures are also lingering.
- Certificate of Need: The state CON law requires doctors, hospitals and other medical providers to get state permission before buying expensive pieces of equipment, such as MRI machines, or opening or expanding facilities, such as outpatient surgical centers. A House bill would scale back certain CON requirements imposed on mental health hospital beds and outpatient surgical centers. A Senate bill that was included in the chamber's version of the budget would be a broader rollback.
- Regulatory reform: Every year, lawmakers roll out a variety of regulatory reform measures that nip and tuck at state regulations, particularly those aimed at preserving the environment. One such bill that has cleared the Senate would make it harder to challenge lax regulation of environmental laws, allow for the hunting of pigeons and repeal a statewide electronics recycling program. That bill, House Bill 765, is in a House-Senate conference committee.
- Revenge porn: A bill that would make it a felony to upload to the Internet intimate pictures or videos of someone without his or her consent has been assigned to a conference committee to work out differences between the House and the Senate over how to handle teenage offenders.
- TABOR: Senators have passed a bill that would give voters a chance to add restrictions on government spending to the state constitution. House leaders have been less enthusiastic about what is known as the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, or TABOR, bill.
- Farm bill: House leaders are still deciding what to do with a broad package of farm-related measures. The most notable – or at least most debated – piece of Senate Bill 513 would allow for more raising of captive deer. House Speaker Tim Moore said Monday it is one of the remaining measures outside the budget that he is "still hearing a lot about."
- Charter schools: As originally drafted by the House, House Bill 334 would have streamlined charter applications and allowed the publicly funded, privately run schools to charge fees for certain extracurricular activities. The Senate version of the bill would have taken oversight of charter schools away from the Department of Public Instruction. The measure is now in a House-Senate conference committee.