Lawmakers in Raleigh Wednesday took a major step in their budget negotiations. A step backward.
If there was any sense of congeniality and cooperation at the state capitol it was not found in room 643, where House Senior Budget Chairman Nelson Dollar called to order select members of the House and Senate to negotiate the now overdue state budget.
Negotiators from the two bodies had agreed each would control one hour of the meeting. The House went first and decided to invite a few teachers, principals and superintendents to make a case to keep funding for teaching assistants, which is cut in the Senate budget.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown said not so fast.
"The Senate would oppose or object to any outside speakers as we work through this process," said Brown, who also cited only members of the conference committee are allowed to speak.
Brown and Dollar then bickered about proper procedure for a negotiation which led to this exchange:
Representative Dollar: "What we agreed to is the Senate would have control over its hour of time publicly. The House would have control over its time. We will control our hour and we will proceed with our presentations at this time."
Senator Brown: "Then Mr. Chairman, I think this meeting is adjourned."
With that, Senators started to gather their coffee cups, pens and paper. Representative Dollar called on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison to take the dais. And Morrison began his prepared remarks which included this awkward statement, "I want to thank our lawmakers for listening."
Awkward because as he said those words, Senate negotiators were leaving.
All this happened in just the first six minutes of the conference committee meeting.
After the House’s controlled hour had expired the Senators returned. And while Senator Brown started his comments with an apology, he was hardly contrite. Brown said the Senate could have called 10 people to speak against the need for teaching assistants. And he had this barb for Representative Dollar, "This isn’t your committee meeting, it’s a joint committee meeting. And before you decide what the rules are going to be, you need to get an OK from the Senate."
Brown said the Senate, unlike the House, has shown a willingness to compromise, such as dropping a demand to tie teacher pay increases to the elimination of tenure. Brown even proposed a spur-of-the-moment deal: the Senate would accept the House's stance on teacher assistants if the House accepted the Senate's proposal on teacher pay. "We’ll start with those two numbers and we’ll then back the budget out from those two numbers."
Representative Dollar had something else in mind as they handed out their latest budget proposal.
And after going over the numbers, Senator Jerry Tillman was none to pleased. "This plan moves us nowhere. To me this is barely worth the ink it took to write this thing. I don’t see any differences folks, we’re not getting these big issues solved at all. We need to get some decisions on those key issues and move on."
Representative Dollar admitted the House's latest offer did not have a lot of "major differences" from those already put forward.
Lawmaker after lawmaker were called on for questions or comments. When it was Speaker Thom Tillis’s turn he tried to rally the troops. "People could have a field day with pretending that there are great emotions, that we’re intractable. I don’t think we are. I think this is where we are at our best."
Saying, "After those comments I’m speechless," Senator Tom Apodaca made it clear he did not share Tillis's optimism.
Senator Brown had the last word in this session. It was a call for the house to do something. "I have thrown different ideas out there on the table. Sooner or later the house has to do the same before this process moves."
The conference committee is expected to continue meeting until a budget deal is reached. Some senators joked they may be there until Christmas.