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Patrick Gannon: June could be eventful in General Assembly

RALEIGH — For the first three weeks of this legislative session, the House and Senate puttered along. The House worked on its budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year, while the Senate considered few bills of note.

Speculation arose that the General Assembly might just pass a budget and a handful of substantive pieces of legislation and get out of town — perhaps even as early as mid-June. Many legislators have re-election campaigns to get back to in their districts.

But that speculation fizzled in the final days of May, as several high-profile pieces of legislation began to move, and the Senate announced its pay plan for teachers. Now, the Legislature’s goal to adjourn this year’s short legislative session before July 4 might be in jeopardy.

If legislators still meet that date, it would only be after a frenzied month of lawmaking in June. Legislators still have full plates of proposals they hope will become law before the end of session, including some highly controversial ones. During June, we can expect fast and furious debate and likely some complaints from Democrats on the process.

There’s the proposal to dramatically lower tuition at two University of North Carolina campuses — UNC Pembroke and Western Carolina University— to $500 per semester. Five campuses were being considered for the change, but outcry from supporters of historically black colleges and universities led to the removal of Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State and Winston-Salem State from the proposal. Supporters say lower tuition would boost enrollment at those schools and provide affordable tuition options for North Carolina families. But opponents worry that the change could cheapen degrees from those institutions and harm their reputations.

There’s the budget, and the House and Senate have different ideas on how much to pay teachers and state employees, among other differences. Senate Republicans have proposed a steep increase in teacher pay to bring the average teacher salary to about $54,000 in two years, but no across-the-board raises for state employees or cost-of-living adjustments for retirees. The House also wants to increase teacher pay, but more slowly. The House’s plan, however, rewards rank-and-file state employees with 2 percent raises and $500 bonuses and government retirees with 1.6 percent COLAs. The pay issues will be the main sticking point between the two chambers as budget talks progress.

There’s controversial environment-related legislation in the works, too. One proposal would eliminate the state’s TV and computer recycling program and the ban on those items from N.C. landfills. A leading House environmentalist deemed “the polluters’ gift act.” Proponents of the measure point to a struggling market for those recycled materials.

There’s a continuation of tax code changes that Republicans have championed since taking control of the General Assembly earlier this decade. They want to raise the standard deduction to help lower- and middle-income taxpayers. And they want to change the way corporate taxes are determined, which will benefit companies who have workforces and capital investments in North Carolina, while hurting those that do business here but are headquartered in other states.

There’s still a chance that we’ll see some proposed constitutional amendments on ballots in November as well. Talks continue over a proposed taxpayer bill of rights, or TABOR, which would limit increases in state government spending to rates of inflation and population growth. And recently, a bill was filed to enshrine the rights of people to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife in the N.C. Constitution.

And, of course, there’s the House Bill 2 controversy. We still haven’t seen any legislative answer to that. We also haven’t seen any abortion or gun-related bills move either. I don’t know whether they’re coming, but it’s always possible.

If there’s ever a time to keep a laser focus on Raleigh, it’s right now.

Patrick Gannon is the editor of The Insider State Government News Service in Raleigh. Reach him at pgannon@ncinsider.com.

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