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If there’s been one area in which the current leadership of the General Assembly has been at its most cynical when it comes to directly contradicting past promises and rhetoric, it’s almost certainly in the area of legislative process. It’s gotten to the point at which it seems that scarcely an important piece of legislation advances on Jones Street without some kind of abuse of legislative rules (or, at least, the spirit thereof). Whether they’re crafting budgets in secret,  holding unannounced, middle-of-the-night sessions, providing lack of time and opportunity for public comment or just springing entirely new legislation out of thin air as last-minute  amendments, both the House and the Senate have frequently seemed intent of bending every guideline of fair play and open government.

And, of course, the amazing thing about all of this is that it’s not even necessary even from a crass, down-to-brass-tacks political perspective. The leaders in both Houses have huge, rubber-stamp majorities that make such shenanigans utterly unnecessary.  Sometimes it feels as if leaders are engaging in such exercises just because they can.  See for example, last week’s decision by House leaders to spring a last-minute, out-of-nowhere amendment on Senate Education Committee chairman Jerry Tillman on Common Core legislation.

So, with the final days of the 2014 session apparently upon us, observers of the General Assembly will do well to pay very close attention over the next week or two. Indeed, the House Finance Committee meets at 5:00 pm today to take up a bill that’s been sitting on its calendar since last summer and that will almost certainly be gutted and entirely rewritten with a “committee substitute.”

The bottom line: Notwithstanding the Senate’s just-for-show talk of making budget negotiations open, it’s almost a certainty that the upcoming days will  feature loads of secrecy and bad, behind-closed-doors lawmaking. Stay tuned and watch closely if your stomach can take it.

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State lawmakers haven’t decided if the N.C. Education Lottery will be able to double the number of ads it runs and then use proceeds from increased sales to pay for teacher raises.

The House and Senate sides of the Republican-led legislature have stark differences in this year’s budget, and one of the biggest areas of difference is how to pay teachers and with what money.Lottery

House lawmakers want to double the advertising budget for the state-run lottery, in hopes it would turn out $106 million extra dollars to use for teacher raises. The budget proposal also includes several restrictions on advertising– including disclosing the odds of winning a top prize and a ban on advertising during collegiate athletic events.

(In case you missed, N.C. Policy Watch published an analysis of 2013 lottery data yesterday that found that all 10 of the counties with highest per capita sales all had high rates of poverty. Click here to read the article.)

The Senate proposed a much different teacher salary plan that required teachers to give up tenure in exchange for raises paid for with cuts to other education programs and the state Medicaid program.

Senate members heard from the N.C. Education Lottery director Alice Garland, who said the proposed restrictions put in place by state Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, a longtime critic of the lottery, was an attempt to get rid of the lottery.

“The author of this language wants to see the lottery fail and wants to put the lottery out of business,” Garland said. “That is why those restrictions were put in the House budget.”

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State Senate leaders are unveiling their approach today to cleaning up the state’s hazardous coal-ash ponds, but a leading environmental group is already saying new legislation doesn’t go far enough.

The proposal will be discussed at a 3 p.m. committee hearing in Raleigh at the N.C. General Assembly.

The AP first reported last night that the Senate proposal (click here to read) would require Duke Energy to close its coal-ash dumps within 15 years, and WRAL had this wrap-up as well and a summary to the Senate proposal here.

Coal ash from February spill near the Dan River

Coal ash from February spill near the Dan River

But Frank Holleman, the attorney steering the Southern Environmental Law Center’s litigation over coal ash, said the Senate bill still defers many of the decisions to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. That, he said, could mean that Duke Energy could continue to get passes on cleaning up the toxic by-products found in 33 unlined pits at the electricity utility’s 14 coal-fired plants in the state.

All the pits have contaminated nearby groundwater, and environmental groups have criticized DENR’s reluctance before the February coal ash spill in the Dan River to demand cleanup.

“What North Carolina needs but is not done in this bill is a direct requirement that Duke clean up its coal ash,” Holleman said. “It leaves it to the failed state agency.”

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State lawmakers still want to see $10 million in cuts by shutting down four regional offices of a state health program that aids developmentally delayed babies and toddlers.

DHHSThe N.C. Infant-Toddler Program, an early intervention program managed under the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, faced $18 million in cuts in the two-year budget passed last year — $8 million in the first year and $10 million for the fiscal year beginning in July 2014.

A DHHS attempt this spring to meet mandated cuts by shutting down three Eastern North Carolina children’s developmental services agencies fell apart in April.   East Carolina University’s medicine school turned down a proposal to absorb the work in an existing contract it had to manage another CDSA office. (Click here for background.)

Now, both the Senate and the House budget have tightened the language around the cuts and want to require DHHS to shut down four of the state’s 16 child-developmental services agencies by January.

DHHS “shall close four State-operated CDSA’s, effective January 1, 2015,” both the House and Senate budget say.

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Falling Behind in NC, NC Budget and Tax Center

This is the 4th post of a Budget and Tax Center blog series on public services and programs that face cuts in the budget process or have been underfunded in past years. See the other posts here and here and here.

Chances are schools across North Carolina will continue to rely on outdated textbooks and limited resources for classroom supplies for the upcoming school year. The Senate budget approved last week fails to provide additional funding for these two classroom areas in the wake of dramatic state funding cuts to both textbooks and classroom instructional supplies in recent years.

Since the 2009-10 fiscal year, state funding for textbooks has been cut by 81 percent, down from $119 million when adjusted for inflation to around $23 million for the current school year. As for classroom materials and instructional supplies, state funding has been cut by nearly 47 percent since FY 2009-10, down from $90.7 million when adjusted for inflation to around $50 million for the current school year. Local schools systems have been challenged with replacing these state funding cuts with other funding sources or continuing the trend of doing more with fewer resources.

K-12 ed_Textbook & Classroom Supplies
Inadequate state funding for textbooks means the continued use of outdated textbooks, and in some cases schools have resorted to making photocopies from textbooks to ensure that students have learning materials. Diminished funding for classroom instructional materials has meant teachers having to reach into their pockets to buy supplies for classroom instruction.

The decision to not restore funding for textbooks and classroom material and supplies in the Senate budget comes on the heels of policymakers passing a tax plan last year that significantly reduces annual revenue for public investments now and in the years ahead. Policymakers now face huge revenue shortfalls for the current budget as well as for the upcoming 2014-15 fiscal year budget, which are driven by the tax plan passed last year. This foregone revenue could have help boost investments in our public schools.

As House budget writers work to put together their proposed budget, restoring funding for textbooks and classroom supplies would represent a positive step in promoting a quality education for all North Carolina students. Revenue options are available to responsibly demonstrate this commitment. Policymakers should stop the additional income tax cuts slated to go into effect January 2015. Doing so would allow for greater investments in the state’s future workforce, and in turn, the Tar Heel state as a whole.