Raleigh, N.C. — Despite working over the holiday weekend, House and Senate budget negotiators say significant differences remain unresolved as the extended deadline of Sept. 18 creeps closer.
Last week, leaders said they were hopeful they would have a deal worked out by now. But House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger now say it's likely to be the end of this week or the beginning of next week before a compromise spending plan is completed.
"I’m still hopeful that we’ll be able to meet the deadline we currently have as far as the CR (continuing resolution)," Berger, R-Rockingham, told reporters Tuesday. "We’ve made tremendous progress, but we are not quite there yet."
"The list of differences is starting to narrow, but the things that remain in contention are significant," Moore, R-Cleveland, told the House during session, adding that he and Berger were scheduled to meet Tuesday afternoon to discuss some of those items, and that he's hopeful they'll have something to report by Thursday.
Budget negotiators say the unresolved issues are largely policy items. Asked for more specifics, Berger declined to provide many.
"We have all along had concerns about, how do you put this budget together and do Medicaid reform? What’s the transition? So, those are some issues that still need to be resolved. There’s still some issues in education that we’re working on," he said. "Like a lot of negotiations, until you have everything tied down and worked out, it’s difficult to be overly optimistic about, ‘We’re going to get it done by this date or that date.’ We’re still working, and we’re still going in the same direction – the right direction, I think. We’re not going backwards at this point."
Funding for teaching assistants – and the purposes for which that funding can be used – has been, and continues to be, a sticking point. While the Senate has agreed to provide full funding for TAs for the current fiscal year, Senate leaders want to mandate that school districts cannot use the money for anything else.
House negotiators favor more flexibility, Moore told reporters.
"A lot of the (school districts) want to be able to use that money for different purposes, different for example than teaching assistants," he said.
He said one possible compromise would be to allow schools to use TA funding only for "instructional" personnel – either teachers or TAs – but some senators were opposed even to that.
Moore said negotiators are also still working on funding for driver's education, as well as some environmental policies proposed in the Senate budget.
Asked whether there might be a need for another budget deadline extension, Moore sighed. "I hope not. We're getting close."
The budget isn't the only bill stuck in the stalemate. Negotiators working on a proposed package of tax cuts and changes say those talks have mostly stalled, too. Both Moore and Berger acknowledged that the budget very well might pass without a comprehensive package.
However, the House has offered $110 million in tax cuts to offset proposed fee increases, mostly at the Division of Motor Vehicles.
"Regardless of what you think about a large tax reduction or a medium-sized tax reduction or no tax reduction, we’re concerned about raising fees on one side and not offsetting that with tax reductions," Berger said. "That’s a concern. We’re looking at that and trying to make sure we have the right balance there."
House and Senate leaders are also trying to negotiate an economic incentives package, separate from the tax package, as well as the governor's bond package.
In Charlotte Friday, Gov. Pat McCrory said he believes there is consensus support for both the economic incentives and bonds bills but accused leaders of holding those bills "hostage" to the budget deal.
"I think the only thing that’s holding us back is that some are using that as leverage to get other things added onto those bills, and that’s why I’m strongly encouraging to allow each representative and senator to vote on each item individually, and not be attached to other items that have no relevance," McCrory told reporters.
Berger responded to that comment Tuesday.
"We’re told that you’re not supposed to tie these things together, but I don’t think there’s a way for you to resolve a lot of these issues without resolving a lot of these issues," Berger told reporters. "In many respects, there’s got to be some level of give and take, where if someone wants something over here, maybe they’d be willing to move a little bit over there. I think everything is somewhat tied together. But we’ve tried to separate them as much as feasible and practical."