NC budget talks by lawmakers, McCrory turn feisty

By Gary D. Robertson, Associated Press | Posted - Jun. 29, 2014 at 9:10 a.m.

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Past North Carolina budget disagreements have lasted longer than what the current fiscal fight between House and Senate Republicans and GOP Gov. Pat McCrory is likely to create. And executive and legislative branches have dug in harder on positions when Democrats held all the cards in state government.

But this year's negotiations have taken a feisty turn for Republicans, who pledged to work better together than their Democratic predecessors when they took over the Legislative Building in 2011 and McCrory arrived two years later.

Budget negotiators have held just one formal meeting since the House approved two weeks ago its version of a bill making adjustments to the second year of the two-year government spending plan now in place. Senators passed their own plan in late May but have declined serious talks until they feel more comfortable with Medicaid spending projections.

The new fiscal year begins Tuesday. More often than not, a final annual budget bill doesn't get approved before July 1.

This year's differences are "not near as great as anybody here would maybe try to report," House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, told reporters during a public appearance last week.

But Tillis' comments lose some credibility because of where he made them — in the garden of the Executive Mansion.

That's where he and McCrory announced an unusual pact to attempt to bypass stalled budget negotiations with the Senate by backing a novel, slimmed-down spending proposal with fewer moving parts than the complicated budget. It's designed to get average 5 percent teacher pay raises approved sooner than later. McCrory brought teachers and school superintendents to the mansion to promote the idea.

"There's a lot of consensus out there," the governor said, but "there are some differences, however, in the policy implementation."

The Tillis-McCrory consensus purposefully left the Senate out of the power play. "Anytime you don't get invited to a particular party, you get a little hurt," quipped Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson. Senators back a different pay plan that requires teachers to give up job protections to receive average 11 percent increases but leaves out McCrory pay-for-performance initiative.

The day after the mansion event, Senate budget writers grilled McCrory budget director Art Pope and his staff for two hours over Medicaid. They had threatened Pope previously with subpoenas unless he came to the meeting.

The tense meeting wrapped up two weeks in which the Senate Appropriations Committee met publicly more often to criticize the House's loose numbers on lottery profits in its budget proposal and McCrory's Medicaid numbers than it did on their own $21.1 billion budget.

When Democrats were in charge, budget differences were generally discussed behind closed doors. Not so this year.

"Chambers have profiled their positions in different ways than they've done in the past," said Connie Wilson, a lobbyist and former Republican legislator. "The divide is deep, but a bridge could be built quickly if compromise could be reached on just a couple issues."

The Senate isn't persuaded to accept the rosier Medicaid forecasts embraced by the House and McCrory, and wants to set aside $250 million more for the health insurance program. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said his chamber won't accept another shortfall in Medicaid after three in the past four years.

"We want to make sure we get it right," Berger said, "and if takes us awhile to do that, then we're prepared to take the time necessary."

Every additional day Tillis, the Republican U.S. Senate nominee, must preside over this year's session means one less day he can be fully engaged in his bid to defeat Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. That could give the Senate leverage.

But Berger also will feel the pressure to raise teacher salaries soon. He promised with Tillis and McCrory in February to raise base pay for new teachers to $33,000. All Republicans are politically vulnerable in the November elections without a broad pay raise for all teachers.

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Gary D. Robertson


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