Hager reflects on budget deal

Aug. 06, 2014 @ 10:50 AM

The North Carolina General Assembly may not be officially finished, but the legwork of their 2014 short session is already behind them.

On Saturday, the House passed the budget for the fiscal year after nearly a month of negotiations with the Senate.

Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, was a member of the House conferee group tasked with negotiating with the Senate. 

One of the largest sticking points between the House and Senate proposals involved teacher pay increases. The House — backed by Gov. Pat McCrory — asked for a 5 percent increase while the Senate proposed an 11 percent hike. In the end, the average increase is between 5.5 and 7 percent.

“I think it’s good,” Hager said. “I would have rather seen multi-year phased in approach. That would best protect the fiscal integrity of the state.”

In all, Hager said the increases amount to a $300 million increase in the state’s budget.

“I think they deserved it,” Hager said. “This is the largest raise in 9 1/2 years but, at the same time, we have to monitor it closely.”

Teacher assistants also remained intact in the new budget as conferees agreed to $220 million in funding for teacher assistants and other education priorities. Hager said the House initially wanted to increase the budget for teacher assistants by $19 million but later pulled it off the table.

“The House wanted to take a stand on TAs so when other things were brought up like film credits, I came back and said we needed to fund education first,” Hager said.

Over the course of its budget discussions, Rutherford County Commissioners grappled with funding mandates handed down from the state to Rutherford County Schools. In the end, commissioners elected to spend more money in capital expense and less on those mandates. Hager said he is looking for specifics from the county before addressing any state funding issues.

“I’ve asked County Commissioners to line out what unfunded mandates and there may be some that are considered that may not actually be mandates,” Hager said. “I think there is something we can do for some of them, I just need to know what they are.”

Medicaid eligibility was another hot button issue during budget negotiations. Negotiators created a Medicaid Contingency Reserve fund to reduce the risk of losing eligibility for North Carolina residents.

“We put together a fund of about $130 million so if we miss the mark with Medicaid, we can dip into that fund to protect eligibility,” Hager said.

House and Senate members removed a funding option for coal ash cleanup, but McCrory issued an executive order last week to begin the process of groundwater assessments of coal ash ponds at all 14 of Duke Energy’s facilities — including the Cliffside Steam Station in Rutherford County.

“He is well within his right and good to do so,” Hager said. “I would have rather seen something come out of the legislature but that didn’t happen.”

Hager said he signed the Senate conferee report rather than the House report because of the coal ash bill measure. House members sought to have the bill funded while the Senate did not.

“The coal ash provision needed to be vetted because it has the possibility of doing harm to the economy,” Hager said.

He said he wants the bill vetted with “different, unbiased folks” and that the bill was not something that needed to be done “at the last minute.”

McCrory said he issued the executive order so “we don’t lose any more time in attacking this longstanding problem.”

“While we are moving forward through this order, it is not a substitute for comprehensive legislation, and numerous issues need to be addressed,” McCrory said in a statement.

Hager said that because the Senate did not accept the House adjournment resolution, the House remains in what he calls a “skeleton session.”