By Kirk Ross / Carolina Public Press
Tuesday saw major movement in a 50-day budget stalemate as North Carolina House and Senate leaders reached an agreement to set the state’s overall spending total at $21.74 billion.
The figure represents a compromise between earlier spending proposals set by the two chambers and Gov. Pat McCrory. Now, it represents a 3.1 percent spending increase, more than the governor and the Senate proposed and almost 2 percent lower than the original House plan.
Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore announced the agreement after a breakfast meeting at the Executive Mansion. Both men credited McCrory for getting the two sides to the table.
Since the end of the fiscal year, on June 30, the General Assembly has passed two continuing resolutions to keep the government running. The latest expires on Aug. 31.
Getting consensus on the bottom line has been the main hitch in budget talks. Earlier this month, Berger, R-Rockingham, agreed to peel off controversial policy changes on Medicaid, sales tax distribution and economic incentives from the budget package and run those items as separate bills.
While it was billed as a breakthrough, Western North Carolina legislators cautioned that having a spending target isn’t the same as having a budget deal.
Rep. Roger West, R-Cherokee, said getting the overall spending number means drilling down on the rest of the plan can start.
“It gives everybody their targets,” West, a vice-chair of the budget conference committee, said Tuesday. “The subcommittees have their target to meet and you can go in and do your business.”
West said that working out the rest of the budget will take time, perhaps even a couple of weeks.
Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, said Tuesday that he also sees the budget talks extending past the current deadline as negotiators press ahead. With a number of policy and spending questions to work out, it won’t be as simple as plugging numbers into the blanks, he said.
“Right now, it’s getting everything in the right place, but, let’s face it, there are policy debates,” he said. “Anything you do down here is a policy debate. Every item in the budget is a policy decision.”
Apodaca said that while work remains, Tuesday’s agreement was critical.
“Everything in the final budgeting process is based off that number. You’ve got to have that number to move forward, so it is huge,” he said.
Apodaca said it would likely take two to three weeks to wrap up work, “unless we have a major breakdown.”
Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, one of House’s lead negotiators, said conferees would still push ahead to try and meet the end of August deadline.
“We’ve got a CR [continuing resolution] until Aug. 31, and that’s our goal,” he said.
McGrady said the Senate’s move to shift larger policy related items helped.
“I hope there’s not going to be much in the way of policy decisions in the budget,” he said. “There are some policies that are moving forward in free-standing bills and that’s the appropriate way to handle them.”
Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, said the budget target itself is a concern and may spell a final budget deal that would not see substantial raises for state employees and would keep some spending a recession-era levels.
“It appears that the House is capitulating to the Senate in terms of the level of spending, and I believe we have a lot of vital programs — education, pay for state employees and childcare vouchers — that we are still funding at recession levels,” she said. “As the economy is improving, we need to get back to where we were.”