by Sarah Curry
Director of Fiscal Policy Studies
The budget is still under debate at the General Assembly, and an exciting debate it has become. This week the House did not hold votes during session, and many of the members stayed home in their districts while the Senate held regularly scheduled session meetings.
Last week the major sticking point between the House and Senate was the funding needed for the state’s Medicaid program. That was settled on Thursday, when both chambers agreed to $136.5 million for the state’s Medicaid shortfall and $186.3 million for the rebase, the funds needed to continue the program under existing law. That agreement led to a difference for the total Health and Human Services budget between the two legislative bodies of only $132 million. While it still seems like there is a lot to be agreed upon within HHS, the disagreement about Medicaid has been mostly resolved.
This week the focus shifted from Health and Human Services to Public Education. House members still wanted to increase lottery-advertising dollars amid stricter marketing guidelines with the hope it would generate more revenue. The Senate wanted to tie a teacher salary increase to removing tenure status. Each chamber was opposed to the other’s ideas. On Tuesday the Senate agreed to relinquish its hope of ending teacher tenure.
Wednesday morning the House called a conference committee meeting to discuss two major issues within the education budget, a teacher pay raise and teacher assistants. The House wants to give a 5 percent pay increase costing $178.3 million and use $165.9 million in increased lottery funds. The Senate wants to eliminate all teacher assistants, saving $233 million, and give teachers an 11 percent pay increase costing $468.7 million. When the meeting began, the House had invited superintendents from multiple school districts as well as teachers to weigh in on the discussion of cutting teacher assistants. The Senate had agreed to a meeting between House conferees and no one else, so they left the meeting and returned an hour later. Once the Senate returned, some cutting words were spoken between the leaders of the House and Senate, and the debate about compromise began again. The House presented another budget offer, not much different than what was proposed a week prior. Senate leaders brashly reminded the House they had conceded their teacher tenure plan for compromise and now it was the House’s turn to give some ground.
A few hours later the House met again with the Senate in a brief meeting where they agreed on the lottery figures. The House agreed to remove the additional lottery marketing funds and increased regulations, which took $29.5 million from the House’s projected bottom line. The Senate accepted the compromise and told committee members each chamber should come up with another offer.
Today the major points of contention have come in the form of press releases. Both the House and Senate have come up with new budget offers. Instead of releasing them in committee, as has become usual practice, they each decided to send press releases stating the details of their next offers for the budget negotiation process. See each chamber’s statements below about their most recent budget offers.
From Speaker Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg):"The House was pleased to present the fifth House offer to the Senate this morning that included our revised lottery position, increased teacher pay to an average of six percent and maintained the House’s commitment to preserving existing teacher assistant positions without impacting Medicaid eligibility. We will continue to move towards a budget compromise that fulfills the promises we made to teachers while maintaining classroom resources across the state."
From Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown (R-Onslow): "The Senate has bent over backward to compromise with the House by accepting over $100 million less in Medicaid, taking teacher tenure out of the equation and offering to fully fund teacher assistants — in exchange for the Senate’s top priority of an 11 percent teacher pay raise. We have now offered more than $171 million to be used toward their top priorities of Medicaid and teacher assistants. This is a serious effort to compromise, and we look forward to hearing from our House colleagues."
And just when you thought the budget debate was only between the House and Senate, here’s a reminder that the governor has the final say on the budget. About two hours after the House sent their press release today, Governor McCrory decided to add his two cents and sent a press release as well.
I will veto the latest Senate plan or any plan that resembles it because I know of no financial way we can go beyond the House proposal without eliminating thousands of teacher assistants, cutting Medicaid recipients and putting at risk future core state services. I’m committed to clearing my calendar next week to meet with any Senate or House member — both Republicans and Democrats — to personally communicate my resolve and to communicate to teachers who are waiting in limbo as the school year approaches.
One thing is for certain, the budget negotiations are far from over and we can expect to see a lot more before legislators go home for the year.
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