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Teacher Pay, Coal Ash, Film Incentives On General Assembly Docket

Jim Bowen

Lawmakers are back in Raleigh today for the start of the General Assembly’s short session. And they’re not letting the short time frame keep them from tackling major changes. Republican leaders are considering more tax cuts, how to boost teacher pay, handle coal ash, whether to continue incentives for film, and much more. WFAE’s Lisa Miller and Ben Bradford joined Morning Edition host Kevin Kniestedt to discuss what to expect. 

KNIESTEDT: We’ll start with you, Lisa. Both House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro-Tem Phil Berger say raising teacher pay is a priority. So how much of a raise are teachers likely to see?

MILLER: The numbers we’re hearing from Governor Pat McCrory is that all teachers would get at least a 2 percent pay raise. Those who have been on the job just a few years would be getting something closer to a 7 percent pay raise. But, of course, state lawmakers have their own minds on this, especially after they heard that it’s looking like a $445 million budget revenue shortfall. I spoke with Representative Craig Horn of Union County, following the governor’s announcement last week, and this is what he had to say.

HORN: Show me the money.  As an Appropriations guy, I have to be able to strike a balance between income and outgo.  I will not spend more money than we have.    

MILLER: Now, the Governor says he plans to lay out those numbers this week.

KNIESTEDT: Well, does he still want to stick to the plan to lower income tax rates next year?

MILLER: Yep, the plan is still to lower the tax rate for corporations to 5 percent next year and then taking just a smidge off individuals’ income taxes, as well. 

BRADFORD: Yeah, this part of the large tax overhaul the legislature passed last year. At the same time, there’s a couple of proposals out there, which would limit cities’ and counties’ control of their tax rates.

So, for instance, there’s this business license tax, and it provides about 3.5 percent of Charlotte’s revenue—it’s $17-19 million. They want to cut it and make it a flat $100 tax for businesses—the legislature wants to do that. And that would cut that revenue in half. Charlotte’s fighting that, as are some of the other large cities here.

There’s another one, and it’s actually in an energy bill, that would cap how much cities and counties can raise their property taxes in any given year. It would say they can’t raise it more than 8 percent.

MILLER: Yeah, it’s not a legislative session unless there’s a good tug-of-war between cities and counties and the state. Another item in that regard is trees.  There’s a push to strip cities and counties of the authority to remove, replace, and preserve trees on private property, and Charlotte has a whole lot of those regulations.

BRADFORD: Well, we know we love our trees in Charlotte.

MILLER: Of course we do.

KNIESTEDT: The state also has a big decision to make on film incentives.

BRADFORD: Yeah, that’s right. One of the reasons we’ve drawn so much film here over the past few years is because we have a very generous film incentive. Essentially companies can get 25 percent of what they spend, back from the state—with a cap of $20 million. And that is actually more money than those companies are paying here in taxes. Obviously there’s some benefit as well. The big question is, do you keep providing this generous incentive or do you let this industry go away? Which to a large degree is what will happen.

KNIESTEDT: And then there’s a host of policy issues outside of the budget.  What else is happening on the education front?

MILLER: Lawmakers could decide to repeal the Common Core—those are, basically, a set of standards for what kids need to know. There was a legislative task force last month, which basically decided they should recommend repealing the Common Core and replacing them with a set of standards that a commission of people appointed by the state will come up with.

KNIESTEDT: All right, Ben, what about energy?

BRADFORD: Yeah, uh, coal ash?

KNIESTEDT: I vaguely remember hearing something about coal ash recently. Yes.

BRADFORD: Right. I can’t be on this program without talking about coal ash, but that is going to be one of the big topics that the legislature is going to have to address.

There seems to be a lot of agreement on the bones of a plan: There are four places—the Riverbend Steam Station is one of them, which is on Mountain Island Lake right above Charlotte’s drinking water—where the ash would be removed. Duke has already committed to removing [the ash at those sites]. The criticism of the proposal is that there’s not a timeline for what to do with ash, outside of those four plants.

There’s also—just quickly want to mention—fracking. There’s a bill going forward. It’s that energy bill we talked about that has the property tax cap. That bill contains a whole bunch of stuff. One thing it would do: the committee making the rules for fracking, it would give them a three month extension. And they say that’s because they expect thousands, maybe even 10,000 public comments, and they want to be able to address that. It also strengthens some things, for instance, what companies have to disclose about what they’re pumping into the ground. The states would control that information.

KNIESTEDT: Overhauling Medicaid has been a big topic of discussion.  Are lawmakers planning to tackle that this session?

MILLER: Well, that’s one thing it appears lawmakers have decided to put off.  Last week, Berger said that may have to wait until 2015 for that.

BRADFORD: And you know, these are all just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a whole bunch of other stuff that’s out there. The legislature’s going to have to decide what to do about this new public/private partnership for encouraging economic development and controlling economic development dollars, there’s drones, and then of course there’s puppy mills—safety standards for dog breeders, and this is something the governor’s wife, Ann McCrory, has championed, and they’re going to be addressing that, we think, this session.