RALEIGH — When the North Carolina General Assembly returns to work Wednesday for its annual session, Republicans in charge say they're committed to raising salaries for teachers and state employees.
They also plan to tackle the cleanup of coal ash ponds after the Dan River spill, whether Common Core education standards should be replaced and how tax credits for film production companies should work if they're allowed to continue. There are also state government budget adjustments to make - the primary responsibility of the legislative session in even-numbered years.
Election-year politics will tinge the Legislature's work, since lawmakers are up for re-election in November and House Speaker Thom Tillis is running for U.S. Senate.
GOP leaders say they'll continue policies they argue have resulted in more money in people's pockets and dramatic reductions in unemployment. The minority Democrats are expected to keep criticizing Republicans for tax changes last year they say favored the wealthy at the expense of education spending.
Here are some key questions entering the session:
WILL ALL TEACHERS AND STATE EMPLOYEES GET RAISES NEXT YEAR? Legislative leaders and GOP Gov. Pat McCrory say they will. While Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, and Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, didn't give their full endorsement to McCrory's ambitious proposal last week to retool teacher pay, they expressed confidence about getting across-the-board raises approved. "I think that much of what the governor has outlined is well within reach," Tillis said.
McCrory proposed $1,000 more for state employees and raises for veteran teachers from roughly 2 to 4 percent. That's in addition to raising the minimum salary for early-career teachers from $30,800 to $33,000. Democrats say the short-term proposals don't reach their goal of moving teacher salaries to the national average. "Anything that gets us beyond where we are now is going to be an improvement," said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, a deputy minority leader, "but it doesn't go far enough."
WILL THERE BE A SOLUTION TO CLEANING UP COAL ASH? Probably, although it's unclear what the final product will look like. And it's unlikely the Legislature will wade into who ultimately pays for disposing or moving ash in more than 30 pits near Duke Energy's coal-fired power plants. Many Democrats want the company and its shareholders pay for any statewide cleanup, not their customers with higher power rates.
But Tillis and Berger believe the issue should be left to the Utilities Commission. Expect the Senate to take the lead on the cleanup. Berger lives in Eden, where the spill occurred and Rules Chairman Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, isn't satisfied with McCrory's proposal released last month and wants to go further.
HOW SIGNIFICANT IS THE $445 MILLION REVENUE SHORTFALL? The amount is just 2 percent below original revenue expectations, with $600 million-plus in unspent funds that can fill any holes before the fiscal year ends June 30. But it still means $445 million less available for other needs. The revenue downgrade also means economists expect $151 million less for the next fiscal year. McCrory insists he's got the $256 million for employee raises but won't explain how until later this week. Expect spending reductions.
WILL MEDICAID REFORM PASS? Despite months of work on the issue and support for the plan from doctors and hospitals, enthusiasm for the McCrory administration proposal to create "accountable care organizations" remains tepid, particularly in the Senate. The fact that predicted Medicaid shortfall levels are lower compared to past years may provide an excuse to delay extensive debate until 2015.
WHAT ABOUT THE MORAL MONDAY PROTESTS? The Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP conference, said weekly demonstrations would resume May 19. He said they would include participants entering the Legislative Building, where police arrested more than 900 people for trespassing and failing to disperse over a three-month period in 2013.
While the protests brought national attention to the conservative agenda in North Carolina, the speeches and civil disobedience didn't derail pending legislation. Barber said voter registration drivers this summer will help make the voices of protest be heard at the ballot box.
WILL THE LEGISLATURE AND MCCRORY GET ALONG? Many issues in 2013, including tax reform and the fate of Dorothea Dix Hospital land, pitted McCrory and the House against the Senate. The legislature also united to override two McCrory vetoes.
McCrory, Tillis and Berger are again preaching cooperation this year, and they worked together last year to pass major legislation. But there are likely to be dustups on the budget and Common Core, which McCrory supports but a legislative committee recommended shelving.