As I write this, only 56 days remain until the 2016 legislative session begins on April 25.
By then, the state House and Senate primaries will be in the rear view mirror, and legislators with general election opponents will be busy campaigning.
So you’d expect the short legislative session to be just that — short — so incumbents can get back to their districts and focus on re-election bids. There’s also still that hangover from last year’s marathon lawmaking period, which stretched from January until late September.
But these facts don’t mean that this year’s session won't be packed with important and controversial issues. It is an election year after all. And it also will be the final session for powerful and longtime legislators, including Sen. Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville and Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews in the Senate and Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam in the House. They aren't running for re-election, and my guess is they won't want to go out quietly.
I asked House Speaker Tim Moore of Kings Mountain last week to name the top five issues he believed would be tackled this year.
Here’s what he told me:
The state budget: The most important duty of the General Assembly in even-numbered years is to adjust the two-year state budget to account for fluctuations in revenue and other changes during the past year. And because this is an election year for all state lawmakers, as well as Gov. Pat McCrory, don't be surprised to see some significant budget changes.
Pay raises: Moore and others have said they plan to give raises to teachers and state employees this year, but the question is how much money will be available for that given tax cuts in recent years. Also, legislators disagree on whether across-the-board raises should be given or whether the available money should be divided among employees based on performance.
Tax changes: This also depends on how much tax revenue is coming into the state, but don't be surprised to see tax cuts this year. Moore and other legislators are talking frequently about raising the standard deduction, the amount of income up to which state residents don't pay any income taxes. It’s currently at $15,000, increasing to $15,500 for the 2016 tax year. The standard deduction could be further increased, which would be good for low-income folks.
But don’t forget that new sales taxes just went into effect on services that weren’t previously taxed, including car and shoe repairs, oil changes and flooring, appliance and tombstone installations. It’s unclear whether additional services will be added to that list this year, as the Republican-led General Assembly continues its shift to taxing more
services, while lowering corporate and personal income tax rates.
Economic development: The 2015 session brought major changes to the state’s efforts to lure new companies and retain existing ones. Moore said he expects proposals to emerge to continue to help recruit new companies, with a focus on bringing more prosperity to rural areas. These debates are always contentious, especially among different factions inside the Republican Party, which controls the General Assembly.
Wild card: Moore said he anticipates an issue will come up between now and April 25 that isn’t on anyone’s radar screen right now, like coal ash a couple of years ago.
If a special session isn’t called to respond to the recent transgender bathroom decision of the Charlotte City Council, that is likely to be one of those.
We’ll see what else comes up in the next two months.
Patrick Gannon is editor of the Insider State Government News Service in Raleigh. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.