Budget deal within striking distance

Top lawmakers say they will be ready to officially resolve a months-long budget standoff next week. Final details should be agreed to Thursday, according to House Speaker Tim Moore.

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Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters Thursday that final details of a state budget should be worked out later in the day, clearing the way for an official end to the months-long budget standoff next week.

Top Senate leaders have also told reporters that a final deal was imminent, to be concluded Thursday evening or, at latest, first thing Friday morning.

"(Senate President Pro Temp Phil) Berger and I both hope to have a final agreement today by the end of the day," Moore, R-Cleveland, said Thursday morning after an abbreviated House floor session.

The state's fiscal year began on July 1, but three different temporary measures have kept the state operating while a final deal is worked out.

Although some items are still "in controversy," Moore ticked off a number of agreements:

  • A $2 billion bond package will be put on the ballot at some point next year.
  • Funding for driver's education will be extended for students enrolled in the current fiscal year. In future years, he said, there is tentative agreements to tap fines and forfeiture money to pay for the program, largely taking it out of future budget controversies.
  • There is "just about a final bill" regard to the complex Medicaid reform effort, Moore said. That bill, he said, would not move until after the budget was resolved. Other lawmakers involved in the Medicaid negotiations say the budget will contain the necessary funding to begin the transformation from a fee-for-service system to a managed care system.
  • There is generally agreement to pay to keep all current teacher assistants on the job, Moore said, although specific policies about how that money will be used is still being discussed. Some school systems use TA money for other needs, something House negotiators wish to allow. Senators want money set aside for TAs to be strictly kept for those assistants.

It's still unclear whether the budget will contain changes to state taxes that have been discussed over the course of a session. Moore said that he and Berger, R-Rockingham, hadn't discussed that. It is possible that a tax bill could move separately after the budget is complete.

House rules would require any final budget deal to be public three days before a vote. If the official conference report were filed on Monday, that would mean the first vote in the House would take place on Thursday.

Process, potential provisions criticized

House Democrats blasted both the behind-closed-doors process used to craft a final budget deal as well as some items potentially in the document.

"We have savaged our public schools by keeping them in limbo," House Minority Leader Larry Hall said Thursday morning, complaining that classrooms have suffered as final budget details were worked out.

Hall, D-Durham, publicly blasted a plan that he insisted budget negotiators were considering to shift the $4.5 billion state employee pension system to a "defined contribution" program similar to a 401(k). He cited other unnamed members of the legislature and staff members in saying the idea had been floated and could be part of a final budget deal or run as a separate bill before the end of session. However, he denied having any specific conversations with the Republican majorities who control the chamber about the plan.

"When you talk about screwing with this retirement fund, you're talking about at least one-twelfth of North Carolina's adult citizens being affected," Hall said during a news conference.

When Hall was challenged on how solid his information was, Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland, stepped forward and showed off postcards he had received from constituents asking lawmakers not change the pension system.

"Somebody knows about it," Pierce said.

However, Republicans who control both the House and the Senate denied that such a plan would be part of the budget or part of any bill before the end of session.

"Absolutely not," said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, chairman of both the Senate Rules Committee and the chamber's Pensions Committee.

Apodaca said there had been some informal conversations about the idea, but ultimately it was dropped.

"We want to get out of here and go home," he said.

Senate Budget Chairman Harry Brown, R-Onslow, who was standing with Apodaca at the time, said, "I believe that's accurate," when asked about his fellow senator's remarks.

The only way that the pension switch would be part of the budget or another bill, Apodaca said, is if Moore and Berger "walked in here and asked for it, and they're not going to do that."

Moore also confirmed that, while the idea had been discussed, it would not be part of the budget deal or another bill at the end of this session.

"The House wanted to maintain the existing plan," Moore told reporters, adding that there would not be a change in that issue before the end of the year.

House Rules Chairman David Lewis, R-Harnett, also said that, although the issue had been discussed by lawmakers, there was no agreement to move forward on any changes.

Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, the House Republican conference chairman, said he "hadn't heard a peep" about making such a move.

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