After swift start, legislature could hit speed bumps over budget
RALEIGH - The General Assembly reconvened for its short session on May 14, and after three weeks lawmakers are moving quickly through some very important pieces of legislation.
The highest priority of any short session is making budgetary adjustments in advance of the new fiscal year, which begins on July 1. Aside from crafting a new spending plan, the General Assembly is looking to tackle major regulatory reforms and other significant issues.
The Republican-led N.C. Senate took up the budget first this year, and it sailed through that chamber in less than three days. In order to accomplish such speed, senators hung around Friday night after giving the budget initial approval so they could officially vote to send it to the House a little after midnight Saturday morning.
Of course, such late-night parliamentary procedures are hardly new to the halls of the Legislative Building, but the speed and process had Democrats crying foul. In the end, just one Democrat, Sen. Gene McLaurin of Richmond County, would cross party ranks to vote with Republicans in favor of the budget.
Among the $21 billion budget's provisions is an average 11 percent increase in teacher pay. However, some $380 million would be cut from K-12 education spending, including the reduction of 7,400 teacher-assistant positions, to pay the bulk of the $468 million cost of upping educator salaries.
Another controversial piece of legislation has already made its way through both chambers in the few short weeks since the General Assembly returned to Raleigh. A bill to hasten the arrival of natural-gas drilling, or "fracking," in North Carolina quickly wound its way through the legislative process over the strenuous objections of Democrats and even some Republicans. The bill has now gone to Gov. Pat McCrory, who is likely to sign it.
One big-ticket piece of legislation has already passed the House and Senate and been signed into law by McCrory. The bill included a major update to last year’s tax reform measures, including a new tax on e-cigarettes and the elimination of municipal governments' ability to levy privilege license taxes on businesses.
While the Senate was in a major hurry to pass through its budget, the House has indicated that it intends to tap the brakes a little bit before voting on its version of the spending plan. House leaders have said they intend to use this week to hold committee meetings on the budget before it goes to the floor for a vote the week of June 9.
Things are moving fast right now at the General Assembly, but the House and Senate could have significant differences on the budget, not to mention the fact that McCrory has publicly stated he has some reservations about the Senate’s budget as well.
As the short session moves along, things will get interesting as budget negotiations get underway in earnest. Even though Republicans control both legislative chambers and the governor's office, there are likely to be sticking points that need to be ironed out.
The last short session in 2012 wrapped up on July 3, and we could see a similar adjournment date this year. But that depends on how quickly Republican leaders can resolve any differences, which is not always as easy as it might seem, even when one party is in the driver's seat.
(Brent Laurenz is executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education and a contributor to TheVoterUpdate.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)