Key priorities linger as end of session approaches
Posted July 7, 2014
Updated July 8, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina lawmakers are winding down their legislative "short" session this month, but while they generally agree on their agendas, state Senate and state House leaders differ on how to execute some of their top priority items.
House leaders have suspended normal committee work and floor sessions during the week of July 7 to concentrate on reaching compromises with their Senate colleagues. While the Senate may be in session this week, leaders there have also said they want to concentrate on hammering out compromises over high-priority items.
Here's a look at what lawmakers have checked off their to-do lists and what still remains.
Negotiating the differences
House, Senate and governor's spending plans differ on key points The budget: Things were touch and go between the House and Senate over the $21.1 billion state budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. There were major differences over Medicaid spending and education priorities that stalled negotiations over all other items. Feelings were raw enough that senators refused to even accept delivery of a so-called "mini-budget," sending it back to the House without comment.
After bridging their differences over Medicaid spending on July 2, House and Senate negotiators have now set about the work of crafting a final deal to send to Gov. Pat McCrory.
One item that will almost certainly be contained in any final agreement will be a pay raise for teachers, although the House, Senate and governor have all offered up different versions of how to go about a salary bump. Senators have proposed a bigger one-time bump, while the House and governor have aimed for a smaller raise this year but laid out plans to remake the salary schedule to provide a pathway to future raises.
Docs, hospitals get behind House Medicaid plan Medicaid: While senators included a redrawing the Medicaid health insurance program for the poor and disabled in their budget, House leaders have passed a separate bill that has the backing of McCrory as well as key segments of the medical community.
The Medicaid issue that held up the budget had to do with how much money would be needed to operate the system for 12 months. The reform question is about how the system will operate for years to come.
Senators put forward a plan that would move Medicaid from the purview of the Department of Health and Human Services to its own agency. The Senate plan would also allow out-of-state insurers to assume responsibility for much of the state system. The plan proposed by House leaders would keep Medicaid in DHHS and emphasizes creating accountable care organizations, led by doctors, hospitals and other health care providers, in order to assume some of the risk associated with caring for the state's Medicaid population.
Senate hears governor's coal ash plan Coal ash: The Feb. 2 coal ash spill on the Dan River grabbed headlines and had policymakers of all stripes declaring they would clean up coal ash ponds at 14 locations around the state. Senate leaders held a public hearing on McCrory's proposed plan but put forward their own proposal, which put strict requirements on when Duke Energy would have to meet certain cleanup goals.
The recently approved House version of that bill is much closer to the governor's plan, giving Duke more latitude on its cleanup timetables and allowing the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to further relax those timetables.
Film incentives: A state tax credit that is used to lure television, film and commercial productions to the state is set to expire at the end of this year. McCrory and Senate lawmakers have proposed extending the program in different ways. McCrory would scale back the tax credit, linking to income taxes paid to the state. Senate leaders would turn the credit into a grant program. House leaders included a reference to the Senate plan in their version of the state budget in order to keep the measure alive in budget negotiations.
Industry leaders are concerned the grant program won't provide a steady enough benefit to keep productions in North Carolina. Many producers hope the state will extend its existing program until a different compromise can be worked out.
House splits regulatory reform effort into two bills Regulatory reform: Both House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger named "regulatory reform" as a key item on the short-session checklist. However, neither was specific in outlining what that bill might entail. The Senate has passed a version of the bill that would remove protections for isolated wetlands. The House reworked that initial regulatory reform measure and created two separate regulatory reform measures, one dealing with health issues – including material that had been included in another bill on autism coverage – and the other with business and environmental changes.
When the House sent the Senate its two regulatory measures, the bills were assigned to the Committee on Ways and Means, which rarely ever meets. Assigning bills to that committee is typically a sign of displeasure by the Senate leadership. Standoffs over such catch-all regulatory reform measures are not uncommon, but the current impasse does leave the prospect of the bills in doubt.
Patent troll bill moves forward in the House Business bills: Two bills of interest to businesses are also caught in last-minute negotiations. A measure that would allow small investors to support North Carolina businesses through crowd funding – assembling lots of small investments – has passed the House in two different forms. One of those bills is awaiting action in a Senate committee, while the other is in an omnibus bill that is being hashed out by a House-Senate conference committee.
Businesses are also watching to see if a measure aimed at cutting down lawsuits by shell companies seeking to extort payments for purported patent violations from North Carolina companies will pass this year. Although a standalone version of this bill has passed the House, it is also part of a broader tort reform measure that could include protections for certain companies against asbestos lawsuits and protections for pharmaceutical companies. That broader bill is in negotiations between the House and Senate.
Under the radar
Profanity-laced recording of NC senator's meeting cited in death of puppy mill bill Puppy mills: McCrory has named getting a bill that sets basic standards for puppy breeders as one of his key priorities for the coming session. The state House passed such a measure last year, but senators have been reticent. Some of that opposition was sketched out in during a meeting between a key state senator and several animal-rights advocates.
The bill has received little public discussion this summer, and it's unclear if lawmakers will take it up during the closing days of session.
Raleigh wants to add part of Morehead School land to Dix deal Dorothea Dix: During the legislative long session in 2013, lawmakers threatened to derail a deal inked by then-Gov. Bev Perdue in 2012 to lease the 306-acre Dorothea Dix property to the City of Raleigh. Although the General Assembly did not take any action at the time, lawmakers have carefully watched as McCrory and city officials have sought to reach a new agreement. The city and state have twice pushed back their deadline for crafting a new deal, and it's unclear whether a final agreement will be complete before lawmakers leave town for the year.
Compromise reached on Common Core repeal bill Common Core: The House and Senate have bridged their differences over how to replace the Common Core standards for K-12 education in North Carolina. Both chambers had signed on to a plan to appoint a commission to review and recommend new academic standards that students would have to meet in order to graduate and progress from grade to grade. House leaders had favored a plan that would have banned that commission from using any piece of Common Core in its newly developed standards. The Senate plan would have allowed the commission to adopt parts of the Common Core. According to Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, and Rep. Bryan Holloway, R-Stokes, the compromise measure will look more similar to the Senate plan but still represents a move to "replace" Common Core. Once the measure is passed by the House and Senate, it would then go to McCrory, who has been skeptical of the legislature's efforts to do away with Common Core, saying the problems have been with implementing the new standards, not the standards themselves.
Passed and signed
Commerce privatization bill clears legislature Commerce Department: McCrory has signed a bill that would turn many of the Commerce Department's marketing and job recruitment functions over to a nonprofit. The new nonprofit would not be able to grant incentives but would be able to court businesses on behalf of North Carolina. Although the Commerce Department began putting the new nonprofit together in 2013, lawmakers did not give it specific direction or rules by which to abide until this year.
McCrory signs tax changes into law Taxes: McCrory has already signed a bill that makes adjustments to last year's sweeping tax reform measure. The most notable parts of the measure impose an excise tax on e-cigarettes and put an end to cities' ability to levy local business privilege license taxes. Lawmakers say they will replace that privilege license system next year before they expire for good, but there is no guarantee. With the exception of smaller issues, such as whether agricultural fairs must collect sales tax, lawmakers are finished tweaking the tax code for the year.
McCrory signs gas drilling bill Fracking: Energy companies will be able to apply for natural gas drilling permits next year thanks to a bill McCrory has signed. The measure will lift a moratorium on horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, a group of processes known as "fracking," sometime in the first half of next year, barring legislative action. Opponents say lawmakers broke a promise when they lifted the moratorium without approving rules for drilling.