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Ready for a real short session

RALEIGH — It always happens.
State lawmakers return to Raleigh for the even-numbered year “short session.” Their return is accompanied by talk that this year will really be a short session, that they will get their business done and get out of town quickly.
In 1998, then working for the Associated Press and covering the North Carolina General Assembly for the first time, I watched as they stayed until Halloween.
In the years in between then and now, talk of short, short sessions has often withered away as the sultry summer days pile up.
That isn’t likely to be the case this year.
Legislators return on Wednesday, and their stay in the state capital probably won’t exceed six weeks.
This year, lawmakers have stronger incentives to get in and out of town quickly.
It is not just about beach vacations that beckon, not only a July 1 fiscal year deadline that has been violated many times before.
For House Speaker Thom Tillis, the need to keep the legislating to a minimum is obvious.
He is running for U.S. Senate, and can’t wait long to be out and about in full campaign gallop while continuing to raise money.
Any controversial legislation passed during the session has the potential to damage that candidacy, and his fund-raising efforts while legislators meet will be viewed with a cynical eye.
Besides Tillis, a lot of state legislators face contested races in the fall. That isn’t unusual, of course.
What is unusual are the Moral Monday protests that dogged the Republican majority’s every move last year, and will crank up again this year.
Calling attention to those moves, with a harsh rhetorical edge, will be even less welcome by legislative leaders in an election year. One way to dull the protest appetite and effectiveness: Get out of town.
The same things that always work against that desire to wrap up legislative sessions quickly will be in play this year. The big issues are complicated and generating the consensus to pass legislative answers is not easy.
The Republicans in charge are determined to pass some form of a teacher pay raise, and probably want to do the same for other state employees. But how much can the state afford, and does Gov. Pat McCrory’s pay plan complicate the matter?
As for McCrory, he has not been shy about putting forward ambitious plans. Getting them past legislators is another matter.
Whether it is teacher pay or coal ash clean-up, his proposals may only slow down the session without some front-end work to generate legislative support.
Coal ash clean-up is another complex issue that legislators will not leave town without acting on.
There will be more on the to-do list, with other possibilities including more tax changes and Medicaid rule re-writes. Meanwhile, determining the exact extent of a budget shortfall could complicate things further.
Those potential potholes, though, are not likely to slow the legislative bus.
The bus just won’t be taking on many passengers, having only enough room for the big deals.
Scott Mooneyham writes columns for Capitol Press Association.

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