Morning Memo: Republicans look to stay united this session, budget a key test

Posted by John Frank on May 15, 2014 

On the first day of the legislature’s short session, Senate Republicans introduced Gov. Pat McCrory’s coal ash plan, even titling it as such, in a show of good faith and cooperation. Senate leaders called the bill a good starting point.

Whether they do the same with McCrory’s state budget is the next question. This morning, state lawmakers get their first good look at the governor’s spending plan, launching the budget process that is the cornerstone of the short session. In the days ahead, the House and Senate will each craft their own versions that diverge in big and small ways from McCrory’s plan.

House Speaker Thom Tillis downplayed the potential for the squabbles between chambers that became prominent last session, calling it “a natural part of the legislative process.” And Senate leader Phil Berger did the same about differences with the governor.

Whether McCrory’s budget is used as a template or a door stopper remains to be seen. Here are the key components:

THE LEAD: Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed $21 billion budget Tuesday includes $262.9 million for the raises he’s promised teachers and state employees, but cuts about $49 million that would go to the UNC system and takes more than $122 million from proposed spending on health and human services.

MORE SPENDING: McCrory’s proposal shaves about $8 million from the total spending approved for the 12 months beginning July 1 – the second year of the state’s two year budget – but is about $360 million, or 1.7 percent higher than the current budget.

THE RUB: Legislative leaders also support teacher and state employee raises. They have agreed to the plan to raise teacher’s minimum pay to $35,000 over two years, but have not signed on to McCrory’s proposal for broader teacher and state employee pay hikes.

REACTION: “We appreciate Gov. McCrory’s leadership in crafting a balanced budget proposal that prioritizes increasing teacher pay and developing our domestic energy sector without raising taxes,” Senate leader Phil Berger said in a statement. “The Senate looks forward to reviewing the governor’s plan in greater detail as part of our appropriations process.”

Teachers, too, didn’t react overwhelmingly positive to the governor’s plan. Read more here.

***Much more on the governor’s budget plan and the circus that is the first day of the legislative session – all below in today’s Dome Morning Memo. ***

#NCSEN – A roundup of news about North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race.

AD ATTACKING TILLIS ATTACKED BY FACT-CHECKERS: From the Washington Post – On its face, it is pretty absurd to think that a tax reform bill that cut rates and eliminated tax loopholes ended up raising taxes on 80 percent of the people in the state. Broadly speaking, the wealthy do appear to gain more from the 2013 tax overhaul, but they also pay the lion’s share of income taxes. And 39 percent of the people appear to face a tax increase, including some of the wealthiest people in the state – not 80 percent, all at the bottom.

Our old adage applies: If a factoid sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Senate Majority PAC should have checked the facts before rushing on the air with this ad. Read more here.

INTERACTIVE: The tea party’s impact on elections. See more here.

THE TALKER – BALLOT CAST BY CANDIDATE’S DECEASED FATHER WON’T COUNT: From the Winston-Salem Journal: Steve Mitchell, a Democrat, and Carole Conrad, an unaffiliated voter, both of Alleghany County, were behind the effort to challenge the elder Harris’ ballot. They said it was not a political move – Mark Harris was running in the Republican primary (for U.S. Senate) – but an effort to draw attention to the process in hopes that it can be changed.

When Harris’ ballot was challenged, it was set aside and not opened. ... Mark Harris, who lost to state Rep. Thom Tillis, said on Tuesday afternoon that he had not been told that the county was going to hold a hearing.

Though it would not have affected the outcome of the election, Harris said, “There is a principle at work here that is extremely disappointing.” Read more here.

Soon to be an issue in the race? FEDERAL AUDITORS VISIT DURHAM VA CENTER: Federal auditors were at the Durham VA Medical Center on Tuesday as part of a nationwide effort to see whether veterans hospitals and clinics across the country are following proper procedure to get patients seen on time.

The results of the audit won’t be known for several weeks, said Durham VA spokeswoman Shannon Mann. Meanwhile, the VA this week placed two workers at the Durham hospital on paid administrative leave while the agency investigates claims that the employees violated VA policies in scheduling patient appointments between 2009 and 2012.

Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan has emphasized the need to address the VA backlog for years. Read more on the problems here.

#NCGA – A wrap on the legislative action.

WHAT’S IN THE GOVERNOR’S BUDGET: A roundup from AP. Read it here.

THE GREAT RETURN: Spoons clanging on pots, singing protesters, NASCAR legends, teams of teachers and a bomb-sniffing dog named Carly greeted state lawmakers Wednesday as they returned to Raleigh.

The General Assembly convened for a session expected to last six weeks and focus on tweaks to the state’s $20 billion two-year budget. But once again lawmakers found themselves under a microscope.

The General Assembly convened for a session expected to last six weeks and focus on tweaks to the state’s $20 billion two-year budget. But once again lawmakers found themselves under a microscope.

The opening day protests symbolized the return of the mass demonstrations next week, and the roughly 100 bills filed suggested that the term is likely to cover much more ground than the three priorities – state budget, teacher pay and coal ash – outlined by legislative leaders before the session began.

All of this comes amid the shadow cast by the state’s all-important U.S. Senate race which drew national attention to the first day as House Speaker Thom Tillis returned to the helm after winning the Republican nomination last week.

The race is expected to color the legislative agenda and spur the opposition. Read more here.

TODAY’S STORY TO WATCH: Anticipating more protests this year, Republican legislative leaders are moving to overhaul the rules governing the legislative building in response to the “Moral Monday” protests that led to 900-plus arrests in 2013.

The obscure Legislative Services Commission will meet Thursday for the first time in 15 years to consider measures that are likely to lead to fewer arrests when protesters return next week but mean more convictions, by addressing concerns raised by judges hearing the 2013 cases about where visitors can gather and what is appropriate behavior.

MORE ACA LIMITS SIDELINED: A legislative proposal to limit the Affordable Care Act was sidelined Wednesday because state House members feared the measure would inadvertently kill a bill to expand health insurance coverage for autism.

The legislative impasse blocks a Republican strategy to highlight the Affordable Care Act’s economic damage in North Carolina and impose a one-year moratorium on new health insurance mandates from the Obama administration. Read more here.

MORE HEADLINES FROM THE FIRST DAY: Creative Loafing: Coal ash bill filled with loopholes. Read more here. Fayetteville Observer: Promises, challenges loom large as short session starts for N.C. lawmakers. Read more here. AP: N.C. legislature return to work, as do GOP critics. Read more here. StarNews: ‘Significant’ change looms for film incentives, commerce chief says. Read more here. WUNC: Tillis sets legislative goals while under the media microscope. Read more here. N.C. Health News: N.C.’s Health Status Stagnates, Says CDC. Read more here.

#NCPOL --- More from the North Carolina political world

ELLMERS GOES TO AFGHANISTAN: U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers was expected home Wednesday night after a Congressional delegation trip she joined to visit with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ellmers visited with female troops for Mothers’ Day at the International Security Assistance Force Northern Regional Command at Camp Marmal in Masar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. She brought cards from children in the Second District.

The Republican congresswoman from Dunn joined an all-woman, bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala.

In Afghanistan, Ellmers also met with Lt. Gen. General Joseph Anderson, the commander of Fort Bragg, who assumed command of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command on Feb. 8. Anderson also is deputy commanding general of U.S. Forces – Afghanistan (USFOR-A) and commanding general of the XVIII Airborne Corps, which deployed to Afghanistan in January.

THE OVERSHADOWED BUT MAJOR STORY: Low-income North Carolina parents can plan to use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools this fall, even as the constitutionality of the new state program is debated in court.

In a one-sentence ruling Wednesday, the N.C. Supreme Court issued a temporary stay against a lower court’s preliminary injunction putting the voucher program on hold for the past three months. Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood had sided with opponents of the program who argued that it should be frozen while the lawsuits are heard.

The new ruling means, at least for now, the state can go ahead with providing schools as much as $4,200 in taxpayers’ money to help parents pay their children’s private-school tuition. The program has drawn so much interest that a lottery will be held to award the vouchers. Read more here.

CHARLOTTE MISUSED MONEY FOR DEM CONVENTION: The city of Charlotte misused more than $132,000 in federal money that city officials received to beef up security during the 2012 Democratic National Convention, according to a new federal investigation.

The city has agreed to pay back more than half that, saying $79,000 was wrongfully spent because of “clerical issues.” But city officials say the remaining funds were not misused, and they plan to contest attempts to recover the money. Read more here.

SEA LEVEL RISE DEBATE TO RETURN: Two years after coastal real-estate interests and Republican legislative leaders squelched a science panel’s warning that the Atlantic Ocean might climb more than three feet higher on North Carolina shores by 2100, a regulatory commission will start anew Thursday on its assignment to develop the state’s official sea-level forecast.

The Coastal Resources Commission, meeting in Atlantic Beach, will ask its volunteer group of geologists and coastal engineers to update their forecast by next March. Their timetable is dictated by a state law establishing a moratorium until July 2016 on any sea-level prediction that could be used as the basis for new state policies or regulations. Read more here.

QUICK TAKES --- A rundown of headlines from across the state.

Barry Saunders: 135 years ago N.C. had its own clumsy execution. Read more here.

EPA asked to regulate fracking’s toxic air emissions. Read more here.

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