The start of this week’s activities at the General Assembly suggested a long road ahead for North Carolina lawmakers. After weeks of stagnant budget negotiations for the second year of the 2013-2015 fiscal biennium, tensions reached a high on Monday between North Carolina House of Representatives and Senate members. A light at the end of the tunnel appeared by Wednesday for House and Senate budget negotiators, as they reached an agreement on the very controversial Medicaid spending plan. The latter half of the day got much longer for House lawmakers as they took on nearly five hours of heated debate on coal ash clean-up. Hurricane warnings nearing the North Carolina coast cut the week short and encouraged lawmakers to wrap up this week’s agenda by Thursday morning.
BUDGET NEGOTIATIONS ON MEDICAID SPENDING
Legislators returned to the General Assembly this week without an agreement on a new budget plan for the second year of the 2013-2015 fiscal biennium. Medicaid has been the major stumbling block in budget negotiations, with the Senate proposing $220 million more than the House in Medicaid spending. By Monday evening, a compromise between the two chambers appeared to fall further from lawmaker’s grasp. Senators returned Senate Bill 3, a mini-budget plan proposed by the House and Governor Pat McCrory, to the House without a vote or consideration. Ready to respond to the bold maneuver, Rules Committee Chairman Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, sent the bill back to the Senate without a vote. He stated, “I think the Senate made a simple mistake. They simply failed to follow their own rules.”
In an unexpected turn of events, House and Senate Republicans made a major breakthrough in the stalled budget talks Wednesday. The Senate invited House members to an open public meeting Wednesday morning to negotiate their budget differences. Surprised to see House leaders arrive with an agreeable proposal, House budget negotiators presented Medicaid spending numbers closer to the Senate’s original proposal, agreeing to earmark another $323 million for possible Medicaid cost overruns. Senate budget negotiators accepted the offer.
Senator Tommy Tucker, Republican and Senate budget negotiator, said, “The House came forward with a reasonable compromise that we had to take seriously.” Tucker also acknowledged House Speaker Thom Tillis’ contributions and involvement in discussions led to the breakthrough. Now, negotiations surrounding teacher raises, lottery funds, and departmental appropriations can move forward.
Speaker Tillis announced Wednesday evening that House and Senate budget conferees would meet next week with the hopes of reaching a budget compromise for the second year of the 2013-2015 fiscal biennium. Meanwhile, attempting to give conferees time, the House will have skeleton sessions next week without any votes. This legislative short session may wrap up sooner than the past few weeks have suggested.
On Wednesday, the House passed a Medicaid reform bill, H1131, on the House floor unanimously, 113 to 0. Backed by bipartisan support, the plan directs the state’s Medicaid program away from the traditional fee-for-service model. Supporters of the plan say this new direction will contain costs and improve health outcomes. Under the bill, the Department of Health and Human Services must develop a method that creates a set amount of money medical providers will receive for each patient they treat. Among those patients affected by the model, 1.7 million residents—a majority of the Medicaid population, would be treated by mid-2020. Passing its third reading, the House sent the bill to the Senate by special message, where it will be taken up next.
COAL ASH DEBATE
The House gave initial approval Wednesday to Senate Bill 729, which may extend Duke’s 15-year timetable to close its North Carolina coal ash ponds. Following the 85 to 27 vote, a controversial amendment spurred heated debate on the House floor. The amendment proposed adding Duke’s Cape Fear power plant, in Chatham County, to a list of four plants deemed high priority sites that must be cleaned up by 2019. After hours of debate, the amendment was defeated based on an argument of “technological reasoning over emotion,” as one member put it. Both chambers set deadlines between 2019 and 2029 for Duke to drain its 33 ash ponds. The clean-up is based on a schedule posed by the Coal Ash Commission that assigns risk levels determining the priority of each site.
The House passed the final reading of the vote Thursday morning, 94-16, showing strong bipartisan support for the measure. SB 729 will now be sent back to the Senate for concurrence.