A powerful Senate Republican floated the idea of letting voters decide the fate of House Bill 2, while lawmakers began the protracted budget debate in Raleigh on Wednesday.
A joint appropriations committee kicked-off the third day of the short legislative session. Governor Pat McCrory's budget director presented his proposal to the group. The governor released portions of his budget last week, and disseminated the proposal today.
The fiscal blueprint calls for a 2.8% increase in spending, less than the budget growth of 3.1%. The Governor is asking for an average 5% increase for teachers that would increase the average overall teacher salary to more than $50,000 annually.
Budget Director Andrew Heath walked through the governor's plan. Afterward, policymakers from both parties and chambers asked him questions about salaries versus bonuses, cost of living increases for state retirees (not in McCrory's plan) and the need to increase principal pay. Wednesday is the first step in a long budget negotiation.
"I think what the governor has been trying to do - and I think the Senate agrees - is try to adjust some of these salaries throughout state government to where they kinda match the market. When you do across the board pay raises what you do is exasperate the problem and make it more difficult to accomplish that," said Harry Brown (R-Onslow), a lead Senate budget writer.
Representatives in the House are crafting their fiscal blueprint and will finalize it in the coming weeks. The Senate will then offer its proposal, before a compromise is, eventually reached. McCrory's role in the budget is a bit of an outsider who tries to push things that are important to him. Though the budget can't go into effect until the Governor signs it.
"It's a lot like the President's State of the Union," said Western Carolina Political Science Professor Chris Cooper. "The State of the Union doesn't have any sort of force of legislative action at all. And the Governor's budget doesn't have that either."
"But I think he does have some important rhetorical advantages. Like I know (Sen. Tom) Apodaca has said in the past the Governor's budget is extremely useful only when considered as a doorstop. And I think that's a great line from a Senator; And a little bit of an overstatement. "
Meanwhile, Apodaca (R-Henderson) spent more time talking about a possible voter referendum on House Bill 2. Apodaca is the Senate Rules Chairman, Phil Berger's top ally, and one of the state's most powerful officials. He was asked if his idea of putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot was serious.
"I'm dead serious. And we are looking at it. I don't know if we can get there with the language, but we would like to. And you know, we've heard from both sides that everybody is either against it or for it," Apodaca said.
As for whether a voter referendum would include all of House Bill 2:
"I think it will be just the bathroom provision, because there's no way to quantify all the other areas. We've had discussions in our caucus about a possible (constitutional) amendment and there is, our people are receptive to that."
"I've been here 14 years and I've never seen an issue this contentious. Never. So let's let the people talk," he added.
House Bill 2 was enacted during a one-day special session in March, following an ordinance passed by the Charlotte City Council. HB2 has set off a national debate about LGBT protections and traditional bathroom practices. The measure bans local governments from passing protections for the LGBT community, removes the ability to sue in state court over alleged discrimination and mandates people use the bathroom that corresponds with the gender on their birth certificate. Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) has stated numerous times he has no changes to alter the bill.
"Politically it's a smart move," Cooper, the Western Carolina professor, said.
"I think this is a bit of a trial balloon. He hasn't come out with a lot of details yet. And that might be on purpose. I think he's trying to see how this flies with the voters. And my sense is, it's going to fly pretty well."