There’s an old joke about the similarities between lawmaking and sausage-making: neither of them are something you want to see, and watching turns the stomach. I’m not covering my eyes, but you bet I’m getting the antacids ready. The 2015 session of the North Carolina General Assembly is right around the corner.
The General Assembly will convene for the so-called long session on January 28th with Republicans controlling both the North Carolina House and the Senate. Today starts committee assignments and other administrative tasks at the legislative complex on Jones Street.
You’ll see some new leadership. Since former House Speaker Thom Tillis is now a U.S. senator, Representative Tim Moore of Cleveland County will take his place as the new House Speaker.
You can also expect drama. The House and the Senate have had a tumultuous relationship in recent years. Governor McCrory and the Senate also had a bumpy road last session, as he publicly sided with the House on several issues. This session, that dynamic will be complicated by McCrory’s looming campaign for re-election, and his need to shore up support.
But, many of the issues expected to arise during this session are leftover from this summer’s “short” session. Here is a preview of the issues on tap — but we’ve learned that the best rule with the General Assembly is to expect the unexpected. So, stay tuned.
Budget: One of my mentors said that you can always tell an organization’s priorities by its budget. Legislators do not have an easy task before them in crafting a budget with growing needs, especially in education, Medicaid, infrastructure, and dwindling state revenues. Add to that a General Assembly dominated by conservatives who despise tax increases and a difficult situation is made even more challenging.
Education: The topic of teacher pay raises was extremely hot last session and at the top of almost everyone’s list to address. A bill got passed giving teachers an average of a 7% raise, but some veteran teachers got much less. Pay raises granted for teachers who earn master’s degrees also were eliminated. There’s been a lot in the news about teachers leaving North Carolina for work in other states. Whether the General Assembly will address teacher pay again is doubtful, but there continues to be pressure to do so.
Complaints about the common core curriculum have also continued. In July, the General Assembly created a commission to review and replace the common core standards. It is due to report back at the end of 2015, but it is possible that we will see additional legislation before then.
Increasing the number of charter schools, funding for higher education and early education programs are other possible legislative targets.
Medicaid: One of the major goals last session for both the governor and legislative leaders was to reform Medicaid, the health insurance program for low-income people and families. Legislators came to a stalemate last session, eventually heading home without a solution.
Medicaid serves about 1.8 million low-income parents, children, seniors, and people with disabilities in North Carolina. The program costs about $13 billion, relying on $3.7 billion from the state budget with the remainder coming from national sources. Legislators would love to cut those costs, which continue to rise, and use the money on other priorities. They just don’t agree on how to get there.
Senate leadership has favored an aggressive plan to bring in managed care organizations (MCOs), which promise savings but have run into problems in other states. Doctors and other health care organizations have lobbied stridently against the MCO plan. Governor McCrory and the House, meanwhile, have supported a plan that builds on North Carolina’s current Medicaid strengths, including Community Care of North Carolina (CCNC).
Further complicating an already complicated situation is the continued debate around expanding Medicaid in North Carolina. As part of the Affordable Care Act, North Carolina has the option of tapping into federal funds to extend coverage to as many as 500,000 additional citizens. While a move like this is unlikely, Governor McCrory recently talked with President Obama about the possibility and many organizations continue to argue that the move would create jobs and boost the economy.
As if that wasn’t enough, legislators have also considered moving management of Medicaid out of the Department of Health and Human Services and into a new agency.
Economic development: Last session there was also a long, protracted disagreement in the legislature about economic development and tax credits. The General Assembly abolished the historic preservation tax credits that support the rehabilitation of historic buildings like the American Tobacco Campus, and drastically reduced tax credits for the film industry. There are already a number of groups pushing for the reinstatement of these tax credits, and Governor McCrory recently voiced the need for a new incentive package to attract jobs.
Fracking: The Mining and Energy Commission recently completed its draft rules for fracking, the process of removing natural gas from shale deposits deep within the earth. They have been sent to the General Assembly for approval. If the General Assembly doesn’t take action, the draft rules will go into effect and end a decades-long moratorium on fracking in North Carolina. It is unlikely that the legislature will rewrite the rules or reinstate the moratorium. However, many organizations and some communities are fighting against fracking and working to keep the practice as environmentally safe as possible.
What are your priorities for this year’s legislative session? What do you think your legislators’ first actions should be once the session kicks off?