The legislature returns to Raleigh this week, with less than two months to debate and then pass a budget before the start of the next fiscal year.
When they arrive to work at the General Assembly on Wednesday morning lawmakers will be greeted by thousands of protesting teachers, whose en-masse absences have caused the state's largest school districts to cancel classes. More than half the K-12 public school students in North Carolina will be out of school Wednesday as their teachers travel to Raleigh to ask for higher pay and more state funding for things like textbooks, school supplies and new buildings.
Teacher pay is just one of many issues expected to divide legislators when they start up their new session, which will likely last throughout most of the summer. They could discuss new constitutional amendments, or bills related to current issues like gerrymandering and school safety.
But the budget will take up much of their attention, as they grapple with how to tweak the tentative budget they passed last year. Since that vote, a budget surplus has added hundreds of millions of dollars to what the state can budget. Debates over the best way to allocate that money has divided Republicans and Democrats even before the start of this session, with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican legislative leaders Sen. Phil Berger and Rep. Tim Moore giving dueling press conferences laying out their priorities.
Here are seven pressing issues that could be on the legislature's agenda this year, and some other ideas that have been floated for lawmakers to consider.
7 issues to watch
Dominating budget talks will be debate over how much extra money to send to schools, and for what purpose.
▪ Teacher pay. The Republican-led legislature has already approved raises for teachers that its leaders say will average out to about 6 percent next year. They have also floated the possibility of bonuses on top of those raises, for some teachers with specialized skills. But Democrats say more is needed, and are rallying behind Cooper's more expensive plan. He says his plan would give teachers an average raise of 8 percent, and that it also would give raises to veteran teachers, who are left out of the legislative plans.
▪ School safety. A legislative committee on school safety recently approved a number of recommendations, although very few of them called for specific spending amounts so it's unclear how the report might influence budget discussions. One issue that did come with a dollar sign attached was hiring more armed officers. The legislative school safety report suggested spending $1.8 million on additional school resource officers, while Cooper suggested spending $10 million.
▪ Student mental health. One problem identified in the school safety report is that public schools here lag far behind the nationally recommended staffing levels for jobs like school nurses, psychologists, counselors and social workers. The legislative report didn't suggest a particular spending level, but Cooper's budget suggested spending $40 million to create new jobs for those positions. The safety committee also recommended that the Senate pass a bill that already passed the House, which would require nearly everyone who works in middle schools and high schools to be trained to identify suicidal students and get them help.
▪ Construction. Cooper wants voters to be able to decide on a $2 billion bond this November that would fund school construction, although the legislature shot down the same idea last year. School construction has historically been the responsibility of counties and local school boards, not the state.
Outside of education, there are other time-sensitive issues for lawmakers to consider.
▪ Prison safety. After a historically deadly year for prison workers in 2017, those employees and their advocates are pushing for more funding. They want to improve facility security through purchases like body alarms and protective gear, as well as money for higher salaries to attract more and better-qualified workers to the prison system, which is chronically short-staffed.
▪ GenX. This potentially deadly chemical went from being nearly unheard of to being a household name in 2017. The NC Department of Environmental Quality has been hit with large budget cuts in the last decade and says it has neither the staff nor the equipment to deal with newfound contaminants like GenX, which is largely untested and unregulated. But despite some efforts in the House of Representatives to respond to DEQ's pleas for help, the Senate has been unwilling to send much money to the agency, which is part of Cooper's administration. Cooper has asked for nearly $15 million to address the pollution issues.
▪ Redistricting. In North Carolina, lawmakers get to draw the lines used to elect themselves. This process has led to a years-long parade of lawsuits that found numerous unconstitutional actions by both Republicans and Democrats seeking to increase their power. With the 2020 Census fast approaching — after which the next round of redistricting will take place — Democrats are asking for a nonpartisan process that cuts down on gerrymandering. "We're going to make sure that nobody, Republicans or Democrats, will be able to do that again," said Rep. Robert Reives, a Chatham County Democrat (who was not in politics the last time his party was in charge of redistricting). However, while legislators still have control of redistricting, they also might use this session to redraw the lines used to elect judges across the state. The main lawmaker pushing that change is Republican Rep. Justin Burr, who recently lost a primary for his seat and thus won't be in the legislature beyond this year.
Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, said last week that several conservative lawmakers still want to debate the creation of new constitutional amendments, and that those issues might come up this summer.
Some of the ideas floated in the last year include new amendments to try again to implement a voter ID requirement, cement the state's anti-union laws, prevent future politicians from ever raising the income tax rate, or abandon the election of judges and move toward an appointment process.
Posturing for the elections
Much of what goes on in this session will set the stage for debates and talking points Republicans and Democrats want to have going into the 2018 midterm elections this November. The primaries ended last week, so now that both sides know who their opponents will be, the moves to try to force the other side into statements and votes that could be seen as politically damaging willramp up.
All 120 House seats and 50 Senate seats are up for election. Democrats need four House seats or six Senate seats to break the Republican supermajorities that keep Cooper from blocking legislation.
Democrats might not have much power in the state legislature, but they do plan to use this session to tell voters about their ideas. Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Raleigh Democrat, said voters fed up with Republican President Donald Trump could help Democrats win back some state legislative seats, but Democrats also want to make sure that "voters have something to vote for, not just against."
▪ Liberal wish list. On Monday the top Democrat in the House, Knightdale Rep. Darren Jackson, laid out a number of issues that Democrats plan to talk about in the upcoming session, even if they have little chance of passing this year. Those included things like strengthening background checks for gun sales, raising the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid, raising teacher pay to the national average and bringing back the Earned Income Tax Credit, which largely benefited working class families.
▪ Defense of the GOP record. Republicans have been taking credit for the budget surpluses that will be up for debate in this new budget document, saying that they think their recent changes that cut income tax rates but made more purchases subject to sales tax are to thank for an improving economy. "The numbers simply bear out that we were right in cutting those taxes," Moore said in a press conference last week. He also said that "the last time the Democrats were in charge, if you recall, there were teacher furloughs."
Who's in control
The leadership of the Republican-dominated legislature remains the same: Phil Berger of Rockingham County as Senate president pro tem and Tim Moore of Cleveland County as House speaker. Republicans’ large majorities in the House and Senate allow them to override vetoes from the state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper – as long as the GOP sticks together. The House has 120 members: 75 Republicans and 45 Democrats. The Senate has 50 members, split 35-15 in favor of Republicans.
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