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Another chaotic legislative session

In a perfect political world, N.C. lawmakers would move to stem the introduction of last-minute budgets, bills and amendments at legislative sessions. That way, we wouldn’t endure the hurried legislation, dearth of thoughtful consideration and chaos we see most every year, regardless of who’s in power.

Alas, such a bill will likely never happen, because the lawmakers in control – Republicans this year – don’t want to give up the perks of that power, which were on full display again this week. But if you didn’t have time to read the thick budget that was plopped on lawmakers’ desks just hours before they voted – or if you didn’t stay up after midnight to see what was passed or punted – here’s some of what your elected officials did before heading home.

Sales tax cap

Is Mecklenburg Sen. Bob Rucho making an annual practice of crafting clumsy legislation that suffers a prolonged, embarrassing fate?

Last year, Rucho led the charge to take Charlotte’s airport and put it under the control of a regional commission. It was a measure so ill-conceived and poorly worded that even after several rewrites, it remains in judicial and regulatory purgatory. This year, Rucho’s gem was a measure that would’ve capped local sales taxes at 2.5 cents per dollar.

Why do that? Rucho was apparently peeved that Mecklenburg commissioners had the gall to give voters a chance to decide whether they wanted a quarter-penny sales tax hike. Mecklenburg’s sales tax is already at 2.5 percent, so the bill would have rendered moot a November referendum to raise it.

After objections began pouring in, the measure was rewritten to give four large N.C. counties – including Wake and Mecklenburg – the ability to raise their share of the sales tax to 2.75 percent. But it introduced a silly one-time-only caveat - none of the counties could raise taxes after November.

Finally, Rucho’s Republican colleagues in the House said enough, yanking the bill Friday and shipping it to the Rules Committee. The measure is far from dead – it’s among the bills that can be reconsidered when the legislature reconvenes for a few days later this month. But the House bill has a host of issues with it, not the least of which is that lawmakers think local governments should help more with education, not less. So why take away a critical revenue-raising tool?

That doesn’t make sense. Rucho’s bill, once again this year, never did.

Coal ash

House and Senate leaders couldn’t agree on a bill that would set Duke Energy on a path toward closing its 33 coal ash ponds in North Carolina.

On Thursday, according to reports, lawmakers clashed on which regulators would determine the risk level of ponds at 10 N.C. locations, as well as a House provision that said no pond could be low-risk if it is close to surface waters such as streams and lakes. That’s important because the risk level determines what actions Duke would need to take to close the ponds.

We think both chambers could’ve gone further. Each plan, for example, left uncertain the immediate fates of all but the highest-priority coal ash sites. Gov. Pat McCrory said Friday he’d act on the ponds himself, but he offered no real specifics about what he’d do. That leaves N.C. drinking water and rivers in limbo still.

Education

The House and Senate’s agreement last week on teacher pay left a lot of people unhappy. Sometimes, that’s the mark of a good compromise. Not here.

The compromise gives teachers a supposed 7 percent raise, which is close to splitting the difference between earlier House and Senate proposals. But the new plan could cut 3,300 teaching assistant jobs, Mecklenburg Rep. Tricia Cotham told the editorial board Friday. Also, teachers who start new work toward a master’s degree won’t get extra pay.

And that 7 percent raise? That figure comes after lawmakers included “longevity pay” that teachers already get separately. The actual average is not only less – about 5.5 percent – but it’s imbalanced, with veteran teachers getting comparatively paltry raises. Lawmakers seem to be betting that those teachers are more likely to stay in their job regardless of the insult. That’s a gamble that should make parents nervous.

Another risk: The plan is paid for, in part, with cuts to health and welfare programs, but also with the use of one-time funding and deeper dips into reserves and lottery proceeds. That’s not a smart, sustainable way to pay your bills, but that’s the revenue bind Republicans invited with their significant tax cut plan last year.

Now the budget goes to the governor, who said last month that he would veto any budget plan that threatens teacher assistant jobs, Medicaid recipients and future core state services. On Friday, he said he would sign a budget that threatens all three. “This is a victory for the people of North Carolina,” he said.

If you’re a veteran teacher, teaching assistant or coal ash neighbor, we doubt you felt much like celebrating.

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