NC Session Marked By Coal Ash, Teacher Pay, Length
RALEIGH, N.C. — The 2013-14 General Assembly will be marked in North Carolina's history books as the first in more than 140 years in which the legislative and executive branches were simultaneously under Republican control. It ushered in a rightward shift in state government philosophy on taxes, education and voting procedures.
But the work performed in the 2014 session alone will be labeled by intense infighting among GOP legislators and Gov. Pat McCrory, lengthy budget negotiations and a disjointed adjournment. Here are more elements that permeated the annual session, which lawmakers hope to wrap up this coming week:
TOO MUCH LEGISLATION: When the General Assembly convened in May, legislative leaders predicted a pre-July 4 adjournment. That seemed reachable because they proposed a relatively slim agenda that focused on approving teacher pay raises, setting a procedure to clean up coal ash ponds and making adjustments to the budget. But they kept adding items to their plate. The two chambers got bogged down over Medicaid and lottery spending in the budget. McCrory demanded a debate on overhauling Medicaid, while the Senate unveiled a way to cap local sales taxes.
"Sometimes it just doesn't go exactly like you would expect," Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said late last week.
COAL ASH FOR NOVEMBER?: The legislature's inability to finalize a plan to clean up and close Duke Energy's 33 coal ash pits was a setback for Republicans, who called passage a top priority after the February spill along the Dan River. The House and Senate passed competing versions of a bill to shut down all of the ponds by 2029, but they couldn't agree on the final details. Now they'll try again in 2015. Democrats and their allies are likely to point out that failure in fall campaign advertisements targeting Republican incumbents and House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, who is running for U.S. Senate.
"Over six months after the Dan River coal ash spill, and under Speaker Tillis' leadership the right thing has not been done," said Dan Crawford with the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters. Tillis said he didn't see the issue as hurting Republican candidates: "I believe that North Carolina is moving more quickly to remediate coal ash problems than any other state by virtue of the actions that we've already taken."
TEACHER PAY SUCCESS, BUT SUSPICIONS REMAIN: The average 7 percent teacher pay raise approved is the largest in years. But lawmakers and McCrory are getting little praise from the North Carolina Association of Educators and other critics. They point out veteran teachers are getting much less in many cases, falling to as little as 0.3 percent. Chalk up their dismissive response to other Republican efforts in previous years to weaken NCAE's influence and eliminate job protections for experienced teachers.
MCCRORY GETS MIXED RESULTS: McCrory took a more concerted effort to promote his agenda and pressed hard against Senate Republicans who didn't agree with him on how to overhaul Medicaid and the size and scope of teacher raises. He threatened to veto any budget that contained Senate provisions on teacher pay he called fiscally irresponsible and reducing Medicaid eligibility. The final budget law contained neither. But as the session's close approached, lawmakers no longer appeared willing to return in November to consider Medicaid changes.
MORE PUBLIC BUDGET NEGOTATIONS: House and Senate Republicans opened the doors to early budget negotiations largely closed to the public during the first three years of Republican rule at the legislature. But it wasn't always pretty. Negotiators clashed over teacher raises and Medicaid. Senators walked out of a joint House-Senate meeting when House Republicans insisted they hear testimony of school superintendents. Democrats complained they didn't have an official voice in the budget process and couldn't ask questions.
MORAL MONDAYS: The coalition of groups that protested regularly during the 2013 session against Republican policies in state government returned weekly for the first month or so of the session, holding sit-ins, leading to dozens of arrests. The "Moral Monday" movement later held events outside Raleigh to build momentum for voter registration efforts for the November elections. They plan to return Friday to begin a week of daily rallies not far from the Legislative Building.