RALEIGH --A new law approved by the North Carolina General Assembly during a special session last month addressing bathroom use by transgender people and limiting LGBT protections is still dominating headlines heading into the Legislature's annual work session starting Monday.
But other items beyond what's known as House Bill 2 will keep the attention of legislators before they adjourn, which likely won't come before early July.
The General Assembly's chief job during even-numbered years is to adjust the second year of the two-year budget approved last year. Additional funds at their disposal are anticipated due to tax collections that are slightly larger than projected.
GOP Gov. Pat McCrory said his budget proposal would spend $22.3 billion in the year starting July 1, or a 2.8 percent increase compared to this year. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, doesn't want to see the budget grow by more than 2 percent.
The House is expected to review McCrory's budget later this week and offer its own plan later, followed by the Senate. Legislative leaders will try to avoid lengthy negotiations like those that occurred last summer, when competing House and Senate plans were originally $685 million apart. McCrory will be asked to sign the final compromise into law.
Legislative Republicans seem interested during this election year to approve a tax cut that would disproportionately assist low- and middle-income filers. It would also help cancel Democratic criticisms that tax changes in 2013 and 2015 benefited the wealthiest wage earners more.
They are interested in raising the standard deduction, which in turn lowers the effective income tax rate someone pays. One proposal considered in recent months would raise the deduction an additional $1,000 to $2,000, depending on filing status. The state would bring in about $200 million less during the 2017 tax year under the proposal. McCrory's budget will contain no tax cuts, however.
Senate Finance Committee Co-Chairman Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, said he also expects colleagues will tweak recent tax changes that have resulted in broadening the sales tax to cover more services.
McCrory's budget proposal would raise teacher pay on average by 5 percent, moving North Carolina's average above $50,000. The permanent pay raises would benefit most teachers, while those with at least 25 years' experience who get no raises would receive $5,000 bonuses instead. The teachers getting raises also would get $1,100 bonuses.
House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said a few months ago he expected across-the-board teacher raises closer to 2 percent. Berger said he supports the $50,000 goal but couldn't say whether that was reachable in one year.
The governor wants to offer 3 percent bonuses to most state employees, with targeted raises in certain fields. But legislators should feel pressure from employee groups to provide across-the-board raises.
Topics left hanging from last year's session and examined by legislative study committees could get considered.
They include allowing charter school operators to take over a handful of low-performing traditional public schools; raising the cap on advertising spending by the North Carolina Education Lottery; and freezing the percentage of retail sales that electric utilities must originate from renewable energy sources and energy efficiencies. Some lawmakers also want all coastal ferries to be free.
Conservative groups also want legislators to take a closer look at easing state permission before building hospitals and certain medical practices.
SO WHAT ABOUT HOUSE BILL 2?
Legislative leaders sound determined to keep the law in place despite nationwide criticism. Will that resolve strengthen or wane if protests and nonviolent arrests inside the Legislative Building occur regularly?
McCrory has asked lawmakers to repeal a portion of the law that eliminates the right of workers to sue under previously existing state employment discrimination law. Berger said he would listen to McCrory's proposal but offered no assurances.
The appointment of Equality North Carolina Executive Director Chris Sgro to serve out the term of the late Rep. Ralph Johnson, D-Guilford, will give lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people a full-time advocate within the Legislative Building.
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