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Pay raises, coal ash top agenda, McGrady says

Chuck McGrady Chuck McGrady

As the General Assembly convened its annual session, state Rep. Chuck McGrady predicted that lawmakers will fund a raise for teachers and state employees, pass legislation that orders coal ash ponds to be closed and tweak two laws that are currently under challenge in the courts — teacher tenure and school vouchers.


But he warned that higher-than-projected Medicaid costs and a revenue shortfall caused by tax cuts the General Assembly enacted last year have created a hole that could jeopardize the pay raises for teachers and other state employees.
"While there is broad support for a teacher pay raise, the bigger question is how significant is the $445 million revenue shortfall and will that shortfall mean there wouldn't be teacher pay raises," McGrady said in an update he issued on the opening day of the General Assembly's 2014 short session.

The second-term Hendersonville legislator said later that it appeared Gov. Pat McCrory had found a way to fund his proposed pay plan for teachers and state employees.
The Legislature does most of the heavy lifting on taxes and spending in odd numbered years when it adopts a two-year budget. The election-year short session is theoretically limited to holdover bills eligible for consideration and tweaks of the budget. But that doesn't mean other priorities can't come up — chief among them coal ash legislation. The issue came to the fore when a coal ash dam breach caused a spill into the Dan River, in the district of the Senate's leader.
The coal ash fix has a major local connection. Sen. Tom Apodaca is the lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate and McGrady is a leader in the legislation in the House.
On Wednesday, Apodaca and Senate leader Phil Berger introduced a bill that incorporates the coal ash cleanup proposal of Gov. Pat McCrory. But that is likely to be just starting place in a process with huge cleanup costs and many questions about who pays, timing and cleanup technologies.
"It seems clear that there will be legislation to address the coal ash issue," said McGrady, a former president of the National Sierra Club and longtime supporter of land conservation. "That legislation will likely require the closing of active coal ash ponds, the dewatering of coal ash ponds, and the closure of all coal ash ponds and pits over the next decade. Less likely is a decision on who will pay for all of the coal ash-related costs."
Here is McGrady's assessment of other top-shelf issues on the Legislature's docket:

  • Common Core. A legislative committee has recommended that the curriculum standards adopted by North Carolina and most other states be substantially revised, but several legislative leaders and Governor McCrory seem unenthusiastic about the idea of a wholesale repeal of the standards. While I expect a lot of discussion of the issue during the session, I don't know what's actually going to come of that discussion. No one is against high standards and generally folks want to be able to judge how our children are doing in school compared to children in other states and countries.
  • Teacher Tenure. With the recent ruling by a Superior Court judge that the law that requires local school systems to offer raises and four-year contracts in exchange for teachers giving up their tenure rights is unconstitutional, my expectation is the General Assembly may try to amend the law. Personally, I'd support doing away with tenure rights for new teachers while keeping them in place for veteran teachers. Over time, as teachers retire, tenure would go away, and it could be replaced by some sort of contractual provision giving teachers due process in terms of hiring and promotions.
  • Opportunity Scholarships. The so-called "voucher program" is also being held up in court, and I've heard there may be a slight "tweak" to the law to address an issue raised in the court action. I do not expect any substantial changes to the law because legislative leaders seem comfortable letting the case wind its way to the appellate courts since they believe the law is constitutional.
  • Transportation. A near perfect storm is about to occur on funding for transportation. The state gas tax is not bringing in sufficient monies to pay for roads and bridges, and gridlock in Washington puts in question federal funding for these same projects. A large part of the problem is that people are driving fewer miles and their cars are more fuel-efficient, which means less gas tax revenue. At some point, legislators are going to address the issue, and one has to wonder whether this looming issue will begin to be addressed in the Short Session.
  • Energy Policy. Senate President Pro Tem Berger and other legislators want to expedite approval of fracking and offshore oil and gas exploration. My expectation is that the General Assembly will take up legislation to provide approval for fracking in 2015, and this will prompt a contentious debate.