The 2014 legislative Summer Olympic games
State Sen. Jerry Tillman says getting accurate Medicaid budget numbers is like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree. His statement, both accurate and amusing, doesn’t reflect last week’s entertainment in Raleigh.
The chasm of differences between the governor, the House and the Senate became blatantly evident as lawmakers tried to reach agreements needed for the July 1 start to a new fiscal year and their own deadlines for adjournment. They are not required to pass a new budget, since they enacted a two-year budget in 2013, but traditionally lawmakers tweak and modify that second budget year in the short session. What makes this year different is lawmakers cannot go home without giving teachers the all-but-guaranteed pay raise and addressing the ever-present Medicaid budget problem.
Normally legislators get frustrated, tired and cranky and shift to political game playing at this point in the short session, but they try to mask this from the public, especially when those feelings and tactics are directed to members of their own political party. Not so this year.
Gov. Pat McCrory and House Speaker Thom Tillis stood in front of the Governor’s mansion Wednesday and announced they had reached agreement to pass an amended version of Senate Bill 3, the budget bill. No senator was present because they weren’t invited. It was a public power play challenging the Senate to pick up the gauntlet and either go along with their revised “mini-budget” or go home and risk the wrath of teachers and state employees.
The heart of the amended bill deals with pay increases for teachers and state employees. The governor and the House were adamant they wouldn’t go along with the Senate plan to eliminate teacher tenure and fire thousands of teacher assistants. This House plan offered an average 5 percent raise and ditched the idea of using increased lottery proceeds to fund the pay hikes, opting instead to tap lottery funds and other reserves and allocate less money for savings.
How will the Senate respond? It isn’t likely they will be willing to admit the House and governor won and they lost. Some speculate they might just adjourn or perhaps even call a recess and wait the House out for more concessions. Whether that is a bluff or a real possibility is unknown, but the Senate knows that Speaker Tillis absolutely must get out on the campaign trail immediately if he stands to win the U.S. Senate seat. They can play a waiting game.
To the Senate, the issue holding up agreement isn’t teacher pay but Medicaid. They say anything is negotiable but have drawn the line in saying no resolution is possible until a realistic Medicaid budget is agreed upon. Medicaid has been the annual budget-busting frustration and legislators are rightly tired of unreliable and inaccurate projections for the state’s share of Medicaid costs, insisting on a big funding cushion so they won’t face another shortfall next year.
These games will likely end in a draw. The Senate will concede on teacher pay (though they aren’t admitting ultimate defeat on teacher tenure) if the House agrees to the Senate Medicaid budget. Formalizing the agreement and finalizing a budget could last a week or more but you have to admit the 2014 Legislative Summer Olympics have been quite a show.
Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, airing Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on WRAL-TV and at 8:30 a.m. on WRAZ-TV FOX50. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.