NC lawmakers approve $21B budget and keep on going

Aug. 02, 2014 @ 05:02 PM

North Carolina legislators approved a $21 billion state budget for this year Saturday, usually the last big decision for lawmakers who meet for several months each year. But Republicans holding large majorities in the General Assembly haven't agreed on when to quit.

State House leaders on Saturday decided to demand their next big gathering in two weeks take up a broader range of issues including new regulations for Duke Energy's coal ash ponds and a requirement that health insurance companies cover autism treatment.

The February coal ash spill into the Dan River, coating the waterway for 70 miles in grey sludge residues left after burning coal for electricity, was already likely to be an issue in this year's U.S. Senate campaign. House Speaker Thom Tillis is the GOP nominee facing incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan.

This week, negotiations between Senate and House Republicans collapsed over how far to push Duke Energy's cleanup of 33 leaky coal ash dumps in the state.

Tillis said the surprise effort to address coal ash this month rather than waiting until after November's elections as the Senate sought was unrelated to his campaign calculations.

"People will attack you no matter what you do, but it's very important and it's something that we're going to continue to focus on," Tillis said. "It's something we should spend a couple of days to resolve the differences. The differences were not that great. That's why I think we should continue to fight for it."

The Senate had just two senators who met briefly on Saturday. They did not approve a resolution limiting what would be considered in brief sessions beginning Aug. 14 or in November. Both the Senate and House want to leave the task of restructuring the state Medicaid program until mid-November.

The lack of agreement means at least a handful of legislators will need to show up for what could be perfunctory meetings next week. The Senate is scheduled to meet Tuesday and the House on Wednesday.

The list of what remains undone for lawmakers includes a proposal to limit local sales tax rates to 2.5 percent in most counties. The large urban counties of Wake, Mecklenburg, Forsyth and Guilford could increase to 2.75 percent if voters approve this November, according to the legislation.

Mountain legislators have warned the largest industrial employer west of Asheville could decide to close without $12 million in aid from taxpayers. Legislation stalled this week that would help preserve about 1,000 jobs at the Evergreen Packaging paper mill in Haywood County, which must replace two coal-fired boilers with natural gas-powered units costing $50 million.

Gov. Pat McCrory also decried legislative inattention to a pet project favored by his wife — regulating large commercial dog breeding operations.

McCrory said next year he will ask legislators to approve a constitutional amendment that would limit the length of their legislative sessions.

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Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio

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