Raleigh, N.C. — A day of scheduled budget negotiations got off to a rocky start Wednesday morning after House leaders insisted on hearing from outside experts on education spending.
Senate negotiators responded by walking out of the meeting. They returned an hour later, but the good feelings of compromises reached last week on Medicaid funding were long gone by then.
"This moves us nowhere," Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, said of a House counteroffer on the budget. "To me, this is barely worth the ink used to print it."
"The House needs to send us a legitimate offer," said Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, one of the Senate chairmen of the conference committee.
House Senior Budget Chairman Nelson Dollar acknowledged the offer merely shifted some numbers around, but he said the House gave up some major ground last week on Medicaid. He said the Senate budget, which would eliminate Medicaid eligibility for thousands, would shortchange the needy.
"Do we help those who cannot help themselves?" Dollar said. "I don't see those things as welfare. I see those as us treating our fellow ... citizens of our state in a humane way."
Brown said General Assembly had to prioritize Medicaid funding for years, which limited spending elsewhere. But lawmakers had agreed to make teacher raises the top priority for the 2014-15 budget, and they need to adjust Medicaid spending to accommodate that.
"You've got to send some type of message that a budget means something," he said, noting that lawmakers repeatedly have had to fill budget holes after Medicaid cost overruns. "What's the priority in this particular budget?"
The two chambers had agreed to share control of the budget meeting time throughout the day, with the House chairing the first hour and the Senate taking over for the second.
Dollar, R-Wake, opened the meeting by noting that the House had invited educators and other outside experts to speak on the importance of teacher assistants in the classroom.
Brown objected, saying that conference committees are not open to testimony from anyone who isn't on the committee – not even other House and Senate members. He suggested that House conferees take a recess from the meeting and convene their own Appropriations Committee hearing if they want to hear from witnesses.
Dollar responded that the inclusion of witnesses would not violate the conference committee rules the House and Senate had agreed to because the rules didn't specifically address that issue.
"We are controlling our hour," said Dollar, calling Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison as the first witness.
"Well, I think this meeting's adjourned," Brown said angrily, prompting Senate conferees to pick up their materials and walk out of the room.
The Senate has proposed giving teachers an 11 percent raise but would cut funding for more than 7,000 teaching assistants statewide to pay for it. The House and Gov. Pat McCrory have called for the smaller increase as part of a long-term system to improve teacher salaries.
Morrison said Charlotte would lose 817 teaching assistants under the Senate plan and would have to cut $6 million to $7 million from its budget.
Cumberland County Schools Superintendent Frank Till and Dare County Schools Superintendent Sue Burgess also told House members of the importance of teaching assistants.
House Speaker Thom Tillis asked Till if he would prefer an 11 percent raise for teachers, "with everything that goes along with it," or a 5 percent raise. Till responded that he would prefer raises "without the draconian cuts," saying that the quality of classroom instruction in early grades is based on the team approach to teaching.
Burgess said assistants allow teachers to provide more individualized instruction and more time with students.