05/15/14 — Lawmakers foresee busy short session

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Lawmakers foresee busy short session

By Steve Herring
Published in News on May 15, 2014 1:46 PM

Salary increases for teachers and other state employees, reinstating lottery money for school construction, coal ash ponds and Medicaid reform shared the stage Wednesday with NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees and the usual pomp and circumstance of opening day as state lawmakers returned to session.

The budget is the driving force behind the session, but Republican Sen. Louis Pate of Mount Olive said Wednesday night that he already has heard that some legislators want to look at the Common Core standards for school curriculum, the highway funding formula and "overbearing regulations."

The question is whether or not there will be enough time -- the session could be over within six weeks. But there are a number of things that could happen to cause "things to unravel," Pate said.

"It ain't over 'til it's over," Pate said. "We do not have a specified adjournment date. I think we should do things that are measured and predictable rather than just make up your mind to do something just because it looks good, and then you come back to regret it in six months."

Lawmakers this morning will begin combing through Gov. Pat McCrory's $20.9 billion budget proposal for 2014-2015 that includes a $1,000 base salary increase for state employees and a 1.9 percent cost-of-living adjustment for retirees.

"We did have a joint caucus meeting today with all of the Republican House members and Republican Senate members and went over things to be sure we are all on the same page because we want to get in and get out," said Republican Rep. John Bell of Goldsboro. "We have got to figure out exactly how we are going to fund teacher pay raises and state employee pay raises."

Everybody is expecting pay increases for teachers, said Democratic Rep. Larry Bell of Clinton.

"I have a copy of the budget in my hands right now," Bell said before going into session this morning. "The question is where we will get the money from. We have a shortfall. I am saying maybe he (McCrory) should not have given tax breaks to the wealthy. He could go back and freeze those. We had rather give teachers a raise than give tax breaks.

"But I don't want him to go back and cut other (programs) they have already cut."

Legislators came into the previous session with close to a $700 million shortfall in Medicaid, John Bell said.

"With what we have been able to do with that, and more oversight, we have a shortfall of under $100 million today," Bell said. "That is a really big decrease of what we were looking at before. That is an accomplishment that eases up some funds that we can look at doing other things, with and maybe put it toward raises for teachers and state employees."

Republican Rep. Jimmy Dixon of Calypso agreed.

"I am encouraged by the condition of our budget," Dixon said. "I know that we have a shortfall in our budget, but we kept $250 million on the bottom line and did not spend that. It will be tight, but I think it is something we can handle.

"I am confident were can handle (raises for) K-12 as well as the rest the state employees."

However, there is always a difference of opinion as to what the governor's budget should be versus what legislators think it should be, Pate said. That will have to be sorted out, he said.

"That will take most of the time that we are up here, although this is the short session when the main thing that we are supposed to do is to make adjustments to the budget which is of course part of that process," he said. "While that is going there might be some other things that we can look at as well."

Pate has looked over the budget.

"The governor last year, the budget that he wanted, and the one that we passed last year did allow some reserves to be set aside," Pate said. "I think we pretty wisely set the money aside so that we could look at raises for teachers and state employees. They certainly deserve it, but in the past it seemed we ran out of money before we were able to do the things that we wanted to do.

"I mean Medicaid has been out of its budget for several years, and we had to make up the money. Well, this year we were able to set aside enough money that even though there was a shortfall in the Medicaid budget, it is not nearly as much as it has been for several years. So that added in to the fact that we had set the money aside will allow us to have a significant salary increase."

Pate said he believes it could be 2-3 percent for all teachers. Plus, he believes that it would start off on a path of increasing the pay significantly for young starting teachers.

Also, he hopes to see something done for retirees and state employees.

Pate said he would like to see the budget reinstate the supplement for teachers who work on their master's degree.

Pate said he thought that supplement had been "unwisely" cut out last year.

"I don't know that five weeks from now I can say the exact same thing," he said. "At least that is what our hope is. We are certainly going to work on that just as hard as we can to do that."

John Bell and Rep. Bryan Holloway, R-Stokes, filed a bill Wednesday to restore the 40 percent lottery funding level for counties for school construction.

Larry Bell, Pate and Dixon said they, too, support restoring the 40 percent lottery funding for school construction since that was how the law was originally written.

John Bell is also a primary sponsor of a bill to allow in-state college tuition for veterans.

"That is a big deal when we are looking at BRAC in particular and Seymour Johnson (Air Force Base)," he said. "Also, I am working with not just the General Assembly, but our local Military Affairs Committee to secure any type of document that could be used to see our strengths or weaknesses when dealing with BRAC.

"That would make all of the BRAC documents, the studies and surveys not available to the public to protect our military interests. If we can come out of session with just a couple of those things we will have a very successful session."

For Pate, Medicaid reform would add to that access.

"We are going to be fighting the same battle every year until we give Medicaid more predictability than it has now so we will know how close it will be to overrunning the budget," he said. "To be predictable as to how we can say much we think it will cost to run Medicaid in the coming year.

"By doing that we can budget for revenue to get us through the things that we need to in addition to serving our population that is on Medicaid. We have got to take care of them, but certainly we should be able to do it in a more predicable way than we have. Both can happen at the same time -- we can serve the population and still see that state employees are rewarded as they should be."

But it will be a difficult and time-consuming fix, something that Larry Bell said he is not sure can be resolved during the short session.

It isn't so much partisan as it is differences between the two chambers and what the governor wants, he said.

Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, could not be reached for comment prior to press time today.