Berger previews 2014 short session
by Anna Oakes
Berger held a press conference Thursday to provide a preview of the short session, which convenes in Raleigh at noon on Wednesday, May 14.
"We intend to pursue further those policies that have proved successful over the past three years," said Berger, a Republican. Republicans have led both houses of the General Assembly since the 2010 election.
Berger named the budget as the most pressing issue of the short session. Complicating budget revisions will be an estimated $120 million to $140 million shortfall in this fiscal year's Medicaid budget and lower-than-projected state tax revenues. Personal income tax collections declined significantly in the third quarter due to tax changes enacted last year, according to the General Assembly's Fiscal Research Division.
The Legislature will also be pressed to entertain Gov. Pat McCrory's proposals for teacher pay increases, which he early on identified as a top priority for 2014. Berger said McCrory's plan to start teacher salaries at $35,000 and institute raises up to $50,000 during a shorter period of time "should be a priority for us."
"Teacher compensation and addressing a compensation increase for our state employees is one of those priorities we have, and I expect us to be able to do something," Berger said.
Referring to the state's controversial offer of bonuses to 25 percent of teachers in exchange for giving up their tenure status -- the first step in a phase-out of public school teacher tenure enacted by 2013 legislation -- Berger said, "I'm willing to listen to whatever proposals are out there ... (but) I do not see us moving in a backward direction in our commitment to reward our best teachers."
Asked if legislative leaders had committed to $1,000 raises for state employees, Berger said, "We've had discussions ... we intend to provide pay increases for rank and file state employees."
Another reporter asked Berger if the legislature would move forward with the executive branch's proposal to reform Medicaid by establishing accountable care organizations to manage Medicaid-funded services.
"I am concerned that the proposal that was advanced doesn't go far enough to help us with ensuring that Medicaid is not a continuing drain on other parts of our budget," Berger replied. "I don't know that during the short session we're going to have the time."
Berger said the Legislature would consider another regulatory reform bill this session, but did not go into specifics. He also said he did not anticipate any major changes to the tax reforms enacted last year, though the law could be "tweaked."
"Economic predictions are not an exact science, and we understand that. The amount we're off (in tax revenue) is small potatoes compared to some of the budget predictions that have been off in years past," he said.
In his initial statement to the press, Berger first mentioned the budget and second named coal ash as an issue to address. The governor and other state leaders have called on Duke Energy to clean up the Dan River coal ash spill that occurred near Eden -- "quite literally in my backyard," Berger said -- and have proposed draft legislation to close or convert all of the state's coal ash ponds.
Environmentalists, however, have criticized state leaders for not responding to the issue sooner and for being too lax in its regulation of the coal-powered utility industry.
The short session will also include additional development of the state's energy policy to facilitate future drilling of natural gas in the state, said Berger.
The Senate leader said he was confident the short session would move along quickly.
Republican Rep. Jonathan Jordan of Jefferson said four to six weeks is what he has been hearing about a targeted length for the session.
"We need to spend the time that is needed," Jordan said. "If we do have some major changes that we're looking at ... (let's) not rush through."
Jordan agreed that budget adjustments and teacher and state employee increases are top priorities in 2014, adding that he believes the state will have enough money for pay increases despite lower-than-expected revenues.
The second-term House member said he would also like to see the restoration of funding for the N.C. Cemetery Commission, which provides compensation to consumers who lose money on burial vaults that are never completed.
Sen. Dan Soucek of Boone did not immediately return a call seeking his comments on the upcoming short session.