Berger-McCroryOptimists hoping for a budget resolution heading into the weekend had those hopes dashed on Friday, as House negotiators cancelled a scheduled public meeting. Senators had already announced they weren’t going to show up.

Adding to the tension, Governor Pat McCrory vowed to veto the Senate’s budget plan on Thursday as he lined-up behind a House proposal for six-percent pay raises for North Carolina’s teachers.

That threat, brought this terse response from Senate President Pro-Team Phil Berger:

“The governor has been unable to sustain any of his previous vetoes in the Senate. It would be more helpful for him to work with members of both chambers of the legislature, since his unwillingness to listen to those who have an honest disagreement with him on spending priorities in favor of staging media stunts and budget gimmicks is a major reason the budget has not been finalized.”

Senators are continuing to push for teacher pay raises of 11%. The governor and House budget writers say that would require deep cuts to other areas.

The House has announced another public budget meeting for Monday afternoon at 4:30pm.

The Charlotte Observer’s Associate Editor writes this week’s back-and-forth budget battle in Raleigh (which has included a walkout by Senators,  finger-pointing on both sides, along with Christmas stockings and lumps of coal) could challenge Bravo’s Real Housewives series for ratings this summer.

Here’s Fannie Flono’s Friday editorial:

rljonesMy guilty pleasure these days is the N.C. legislature. The Real Housewives of Atlanta or Orange County have nothing on state lawmakers for entertainment value. Take for instance, the petulant walkout of N.C. Senate Republicans on Wednesday.

It was a bit surreal watching the honorables pack their belongings and sashay – ok, walk – out of a committee hearing because – gasp! – non-legislators (i.e., the public who pays their salaries) had been invited to speak on the issue before them. It was kinda like watching Housewife Nene walk out on Kenya after another contrived wrong on TV.

The bewildered looks on the faces of some of those non-legislators – school superintendents who had come to speak about the education issues that were the subject of the public budget negotiations between the House and Senate – were priceless.

So was the back-and-forth from chief negotiators of both chambers. Said Sen. Harry Brown to Rep. Nelson Dollar, both Republicans: “This isn’t your committee meeting. You decided you would be the rule-maker of this committee. The Senate isn’t going to allow that to happen.”

Dollar responded that the inclusion of witnesses would not violate the conference committee rules the House and Senate had agreed to because the rules didn’t specifically address that issue.

“We are controlling our hour,” said Dollar, calling Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison as the first witness.

“Well, I think this meeting’s adjourned,” Brown said angrily, prompting his conferees to leave.

When the senators returned, they found a Christmas wreath on the podium, Christmas stockings on the chairs of Senate negotiators and lumps of coal on those of House negotiators. This was all in apparent reference to a House member’s warning that a compromise could be as far off as Christmas. Pass the popcorn, please.

In the meantime, Morrison had made a pitch for lawmakers not to cut teacher assistants, which is part of the Senate’s plan to help pay for an 11 percent raise for teachers. He such cuts would cost hundreds of jobs and hurt schools’ abilities to meet new student literacy requirements.

The senators didn’t get to hear that or other public comments. They may not have wanted to. Many lawmakers have said teacher assistants are a waste of money. Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger has reinforced that notion, saying studies show them to be of little value to student achievement. An author of one study he quotes weighed in with N.C. Policy Watch and said that was wrong. “Getting rid of TAs (teacher assistants) is actually going to cause schools far more problems than it will solve,” said Ron Webster of the University of London.

Berger now says he’s willing to reconsider cuts to teacher assistants. Midday Thursday, the Senate offered a plan which allows more than $171 million for the House to earmark toward Medicaid and teacher assistants. Given that the Senate hoped to gain more than $230 million from cutting teacher assistants, that proposal comes up laughably short of meeting either of those needs.

Senate negotiators don’t seem bothered by deep cuts to Medicaid. No surprise there. The Senate budget had already called for changing eligibility guidelines which would toss thousands of disabled and elderly people from the Medicaid rolls.

On Wednesday Sen. Neal Hunt and Dollar jousted over Hunt’s reference to Medicaid as welfare. Dollar responded that Medicaid money is spent on mental health, pregnant women, people who have diabetes, or cancer, or heart disease.

“I don’t see those things as welfare. I see those as treating our fellow 1.6, 1.7 million citizens of our state in a very humane way.”

Given how Republicans in the House and Senate have taken an ax to services across the board to support unwise tax cuts, it is amusing to hear them fight with each other over the matter these days. Amusing and entertaining.

For his part, Gov. Pat McCrory is acting like the adult among N.C. pols. He said he was “extremely disappointed that members of the Senate walked out on superintendents and teachers. I don’t think that’s the appropriate way to have dialogue with our educators… We need to listen to them, not walk out on them.”

Rewind. Is this the same governor who a year ago substituted an exchange of cookies for a conversation with protesters over his stands on women’s issues, particularly his reneging on a pledge not to support further restrictions on access to abortion?

Yes, it is. Good for him.

Listening to the public shouldn’t be that hard for politicians. Every election season, those running for office at least pretend to. The better time to do so is when shaping public policy.

Lawmakers should keep that in mind as they do the public’s business and wind up this legislative session.

You can read more of Flono’s writing here in the Charlotte Observer.

As budget-talks head toward the weekend, Governor Pat McCrory took the unusual step Thursday of issuing a press Tillis_McCrory_Berger-400release pledging to veto the Senate’s budget proposal, if those were somehow the final numbers to come out of the budget-writers’ conference committee.

Earlier in the day, the House agreed to move to a six-percent pay raise for teachers, but leaders have yet to say where they would shift money from to cover the higher amount.

And McCrory has made it clear that it’s the new House plan he supports:

“The Senate is currently standing by themselves with no visible support outside of the Beltline of our state capital.”

“I will veto the latest Senate plan or any plan that resembles it because I know of no financial way we can go beyond the House proposal without eliminating thousands of teacher assistants, cutting Medicaid recipients and putting at risk future core state services,” said the governor in a press release.

Meanwhile the Senate released its sixth budget offer on Thursday, still sticking to the higher raises that Gov. McCrory has said are ‘not realistic.’

Stay tuned…

If you’re trying to get up to speed on this week’s colorful and cantankerous state budget negotiations, here are three quick takeaways:

Budget conferees are expected to meet again today, though an exact time has not been announced. The NC House goes into session at 11:00 a.m., the Senate at 2:00 p.m.

With another day of negotiations on tap, the Wilmington Star News says it’s time for state representatives and senators to end their posturing and find some common ground. The editorial board writes that the current budget logjam has only served to create more uncertainty for educators and North Carolina’s public schools. Here an excerpt from Thursday’s editorial:

Budget cutsIt was encouraging news when, on Tuesday, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, announced that the House and Senate had agreed not to tie a teacher pay increase to tenure. The stipulation had been inserted by the Senate, which until Tuesday stood firm by its decision. While the two sides still had much to discuss – not the least of which was the Senate’s insistence on cutting funding for teacher assistants – they had cleared one roadblock.

That kumbaya moment didn’t last long.

Senate leaders walked out on the budget talks Wednesday morning, an indication that this will be a very long “short session.” House members of the conference committee wanted to hear from superintendents about the education budget; Senate leaders countered that it would be against the rules and walked out in a huff.

They returned, but news media covering the talks reported that the mood was much less harmonious.

By law, the General Assembly is supposed to have a budget in place by July 1, the start of the 2014-15 fiscal year. It is not unusual for negotiations to drag the process out a few weeks, but typically by this point there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Based on the current stalemate, things don’t look promising for a spending plan anytime soon.

Gov. Pat McCrory and the state House have stood together on one side, while the Senate’s budget contained significant differences in how to handle education and Medicaid, among other things. The conference committee reached an agreement on Medicaid last week, though it still falls short. Nevertheless, it was progress.

Likewise, it seemed Tuesday that the Honorables were moving toward a budget agreement. Then it was back to square one.

The House is right to object to severe cuts in funding for teacher assistants. Regardless of a study senators tout that said teacher assistants have no measurable improvement on student achievement, teachers know they are an invaluable resource, particularly in classrooms where a large percentage of children need help catching up academically. As more pressure is put on teachers and students to Pass That Test, teacher assistants give their education partners the one thing no pay raise can: time – time to spend working in small groups or individually with students.

Yet, if the House and Senate can’t sit down long enough to discuss the issue, school systems won’t even be sure what money they will and won’t have to spend next year. Let us hope that calmer heads and a spirit of compromise for the good of the people prevail. Uncertainty is no way to run state government.

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