House hits a wicked curve and scores a P.R. coup

Published June 13, 2014

By Tom Campbell

by Tom Campbell, Executive Producer and Moderator, NC SPIN, June 12, 2014.

It was late in the game. The House was at bat to take its cut at the state budget. The State Senate team had thrown them a wicked curveball. Did the House have the skill and the moxie to respond in this modern-day “Casey-at-the-bat” scenario?

House budget leaders were in a box. Tax increases were off the table. Teachers had to get pay raises and Medicaid reform had to be addressed. There wasn’t much appetite in their caucus for large additional budget cuts in an election year. The crowd in the grandstand was anxious, even angry.

The House didn’t hit a home run but they definitely got a solid hit and scored one of the biggest public relations coups in years.

The House budget will provide teachers an average pay increase of 5 percent, not as much as many would have hoped for but certainly respectable. Teacher assistants were retained and no further education cuts were made. House leaders wisely chose not to swing at the lightning rod of teacher tenure and left career status in place. The House decided to get needed additional revenues from increased lottery proceeds.

This was a bitter pill to swallow since most House Republicans were opposed to the lottery from the get-go and the notion of increasing lottery advertising to get more people to spend more money gambling was especially distasteful. It does fulfill the prophecy of lottery antagonists that gambling proceeds would supplant, not supplement education funding. But as Speaker Tillis correctly said, we can’t “unring” that bell.

Teachers, educators, Democrats, editorialists and political pundits grumbled about House teacher pay funding solutions but in comparison with the Senate plan sometimes the least offensive option becomes the best course. Expect the reaction to grow from muted acceptance to vocal support when it comes time to negotiate differences between Senate and House proposals.

The house of medicine was equally adamant in opposition to Senate Medicaid proposals. The House wisely did not remove Medicaid from the Department of Health and Human Services and didn’t throw granny out of the nursing home onto the street, as many had claimed the Senate plan would do. House leaders promise a separate reform bill but most likely reform will wait until next year. But the House does contain the interesting provision that the Medicaid Director, while operating within DHHS, will be appointed directly by the Governor and confirmed by the legislature, a move that gives that director more autonomy and makes him or her more responsive and accountable.

With such radical differences it will be up to conferees from both houses to reach a compromise. Governor McCrory is certain to side with the House, while folks back home – especially doctors, teachers, nursing homes and hospitals, school boards and parents - will unite in support of the House budget. The Senate may not capitulate completely but they will likely bend to public pressure and the final budget will look more like the House version.

You have to acknowledge it was a brilliant public relations victory for the House, and especially Speaker Thom Tillis. Who would have suspected they could unite those who previously opposed them to rally to their support? And this might provide the margin for victory in Tillis’ election to the U.S. Senate.