by Mark Binker WRAL, January 14, 2015.
If anyone was hoping Republican and Democratic leaders would lay out detailed agendas on the first day of the 2015 General Assembly session, they were in for disappointment.
Newly installed House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger gave a broad-brush overview during a 35-minute news conference Wednesday, but both men said they were looking to their members and Gov. Pat McCrory to provide specific proposals.
They’ve got some time. Lawmakers won’t begin work in earnest for two weeks. But from comments Wednesday, it sounds like that time will be spent sketching out legislative proposals.
Asked about tax reform, for example, Berger, R-Rockingham, said that the General Assembly may look at proposals that individual members bring forward, but he said the state is still watching for what comes of the changes made in the past two years.
“As far as specifics, I don’t have anything specific to propose or to bring to you,” Berger said. “I’m sure there will be bills that are introduced, and we’ll take a look at them … I would say that there is a sense amongst a number of folks that we made some big changes, (and) we are seeing some results. We are seeing some things that we like, and we’ve got some things that we need to let a little more time go before we know how we’re doing.”
In general, both Berger and Moore said they would like to put forward proposals that would spark more job creation in the state, but when asked about specific measures, such as bringing back a tax credit to aid in the rehabilitation of historic structures, Moore and Berger were circumspect.
“I agree with Sen. Berger. We need to collaborate with the folks at (the Commerce Department), we need to find out what it is they need, and I believe we’re ready to try to help,” Moore, R-Cleveland, said.
The two men were specific in one area though. Despite hints from McCrory and Secretary of Health and Human Services Aldona Wos that they may propose an expansion of the state’s Medicaid program to cover more individuals, Berger and Moore suggested that was not in the cards this year.
“There is, in my view, no good case that can be made that Medicaid expansion is the right thing for us to do in North Carolina,” Berger said.
Moore added, “I continue to be unconvinced that Medicaid expansion is a good idea.”
Democrats propose ethics changes
Rep. Larry Hall, D-Durham, and Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, the Democratic minority leaders in the House and Senate, were also circumspect.
“We have to adopt the attitude we’re going to take teacher pay to the national average,” Blue said regarding education, quickly adding that Senate Democrats “haven’t fully developed our education agenda yet.”
The one place the two Democrats were specific was in calling for new ethics reforms, a legislative proposal that doubled as a swipe at McCrory, a Republican who has been the subject of an ethics complaint questioning whether he properly reported non-government income.
“It’s almost ludicrous to think we would not require clear and open reporting by our officials,” Hall said. “There’s no reason that full-time elected officials should be held to a lower standard … than (those elected) on the federal level.”
The Democrats outlined two measures they thought the state should take. First, they said that North Carolina law should ban full-time elected officials such as the governor and state auditor from having outside income. Secondly, they proposed make the state’s ethics forms more specific when it comes to stock ownership. The current form requires that an elected official list stock only if they own more than $10,000. However, the amount of that stock isn’t specified. Federal disclosure forms provide ranges that allow voters to know approximately how much stock is owned.
Moore and Berger said they had not heard about those proposals, but were skeptical of the need.
“We have to disclose quite a bit as it is,” Moore said. “I’m not sure what else you would disclose that we don’t already.”
Moore also said he was not troubled by the stories involving McCrory.
“From everything I’ve seen, frankly, there’s no merit to the criticism that’s been levied against the governor on this. It appears that it’s coming from a liberal activist group and it’s all politically motivated,” Moore said.
Teacher pay still on agenda
Both Berger and Moore said they would like to do more with regard to teacher pay. In particular, the two men said they would follow through on a commitment to raise the state’s base salary for a starting teacher to $35,000 per year.
“We passed last session one of the largest pay raises for teachers that we’ve seen in North Carolina,” Berger said. “We did that in the context of changing the pay structure.”
Part of that changed structure meant that not all teachers saw the same average raise. Veteran teachers who had been in the public school system for decades saw far less of a bump than did teachers who are in the first few years of their careers.
“That’s where the folks at (the Department of Public Instruction) told us we needed to focus because that’s where the high turnover was,” Moore said. “I would like to see us do more for veteran teachers, I absolutely would.”
But it’s unclear what that “more” might look like. Early discussions about teacher pay have discussed whether the state put in place a pay-for-performance plan rather than across-the-board pay hikes. That’s an idea the Berger floated.
“We’ll take a look at ways we can reward our best teachers for providing real value in terms of improvement of student performance in the classroom, and I think that’s going to be the focus of what we’d like to see with the rest of teacher pay,” Berger said.
Lawmakers will return to Raleigh to flesh out some of these ideas at the end of the month.
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