After more than two weeks of stalemate and discord between the two chambers, the Republican-controlled House and Senate may have made a major breakthrough on budget negotiations Wednesday.
At a meeting called by the Senate, budget negotiators from both chambers sat down in a packed committee room to discuss offers and counteroffers.
The main sticking points between the House and Senate centered on disputes over projections on Medicaid costs and lottery revenue, along with a disagreement on “reversions,” that is, how much money would be left over from the recently concluded 2013-2014 fiscal year.
After about 40 minutes of discussion, the conference committee broke for a recess so that senators could consider a House counter-proposal. Upon their return, Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown announced that his chamber would agree to split a $10 million difference on reversions and would accept a House offer to meet halfway on Medicaid spending.
However, Brown said, “we have some concerns on the uncertainty on the lottery, so we’d like to maintain our lottery position.”
Rep. Nelson Dollar, the House’s chief budget-writer, said that while he would have to get back to Brown on the Senate’s lottery stance, he was pleased with that chamber’s decision on reversions and Medicaid.
“Senator Brown, you haven’t sold us the car yet, but we do like some of the features,” Dollar said.
“Alright, we’re getting close. We’ve got you on a test drive,” Brown responded.
The meeting on Wednesday was unusual in that budget negotiations are seldom conducted in full view of the public. However, the spotlight may have helped the two sides jump-start talks that appeared to be at a standstill.
The House and Senate still have some heavy lifting to reach a final agreement on a spending plan, including teacher pay raises. But getting past their entrenched disagreements over the sizable issue of Medicaid costs could be enough to spur a budget compromise in the coming days, especially as lawmakers seem increasingly anxious to adjourn and turn their attention to this fall’s elections.
“Things are looking like we better be ready to work, because it looks like we’re finally getting to a point we may be able to shut down,” Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca told his colleagues when laying out next week’s post-Fourth-of-July meeting schedule.
The biennial state spending plan currently in place already covers the new fiscal year that began this week, meaning lawmakers could end their annual session without passing an updated version of the budget that they approved in 2013.
But adjourning without following through on their high-profile pledges to raise teacher salaries could prove politically embarrassing to Gov. Pat McCrory and legislative leaders, including House Speaker Thom Tillis, who is in the midst of a tough campaign for U.S. Senate.
Full audio of Wednesday’s Budget Conference Committee can be heard below, courtesy of VoterRadio.com.