RALEIGH — Senate Republicans offered solutions late Thursday to end the General Assembly’s extended work session this year. But they also offered a hard bargain to House members to resolve a problem about teacher assistants by linking it to a sales tax and economic development measure.
The full Senate, meeting for the first time in two weeks, voted for three different options on how to adjourn the three-month session, which has been in a holding pattern because GOP legislators disagreed on a schedule to take up pending legislation later in the year.
One Senate option would have lawmakers returning Nov. 17 to consider overhauling Medicaid, with another on the same date to consider Medicaid, a coal ash cleanup plan and some other items. An effort by House Republicans to reach a final agreement with senators on coal ash this week faded.
Without a final adjournment resolution, the House and Senate must hold floor sessions every fourth day in keeping with the state constitution heading into the fall election season. That would limit them being able to collect certain political committee contributions.
“It’s time for the session to end, and that’s why we’re giving the House maximum flexibility and a choice of adjournment,” said Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. Senate Republicans prefer taking up Medicaid and coal ash in November, Berger said.
Senators also passed another bill designed to address complaints by local school districts that they’d have less money than anticipated this school year if they transferred funding earmarked to hire teachers to employ teacher assistants. The $21.1 billion state budget law signed into law last week didn’t address the issue.
The provision comes with a catch, however.
The bill says the teacher assistant fix wouldn’t become law unless the House voted for a bill already in its possession that would cap local sales taxes, create a new $20 million economic incentives program to attract jobs in rural areas and a new method for raising private funds for small companies. House and Senate negotiators reached an agreement on this measure late last month, but not enough in the full House got on board.
Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson and chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, said the bargain is designed to resolve the issue quickly. “We need to get moving here and get it passed and done,” Apodaca said.
Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, criticized Senate Republican colleagues for making the teacher assistant adjustment contingent on the tax and incentives bill. “You all are playing political games,” he said on the Senate floor before the measure passed and went to the House.
House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said he didn’t know if fellow House Republicans would accept the bargain, which would be discussed in their closed-door meeting Friday morning. Both the House and Senate scheduled floor sessions later Friday.
“We’re trying to sort out some of the options,” Tillis told reporters.
The economic development items and the teacher assistant fix are important to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. He and his administration have said they’d like to see both passed before adjournment. “My biggest request is to get the economic development bill out, and if we get that bill out, I think it’s time for them to go home,” McCrory told reporters Thursday morning.
The Senate also performed a parliamentary maneuver Thursday evening that effectively ended hopes that final legislation to clean up coal ash pits near current or former Duke Energy power plants would be resolved this summer. The House and Senate weeks ago passed competing versions that would have directed Duke to close all the pits by 2029.
Negotiations got derailed in the final hours before most of the work session ended Aug. 2. Republican leaders had made passage of a coal ash plan a top priority. Both Berger and Tillis acknowledged Thursday the inability to finalize a plan now in the wake of a huge coal ash spill along the Dan River near Eden in February led to the action. The two leaders said they had made great strides in the past several months.
“This is a very serious bill, and I think it’s appropriate to take the time and get it right,” Tillis said.