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What to expect as state lawmakers begin their new session in Raleigh

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The North Carolina General Assembly is back in session, and lawmakers have a lot on their plate even though they're hoping to only meet for a couple of months.

Joining me to talk about what lawmakers in Raleigh are doing, and what the major issues might be, is journalist Bryan Anderson. He is the creator of the Anderson Alerts Substack newsletter.

Marshall Terry: So, remind us quickly: What's the difference between the General Assembly's so-called long and short sessions? And what are they hoping to accomplish in this session, which is a short session?

Bryan Anderson: So, "long session" equals a miserable reporter, "short session" equals happier reporters. Basically long session, you have a two-year budget — a lot more bill introductions, hundreds of bills. Short session, it’s a revised budget — the hardest work has already been done, and there's also fewer new bills. It's usually tweaking existing bills or modifying them. There's some new bills, but certainly not to the level of a long session.

And as for what they're hoping to accomplish this year, there's a medical marijuana proposal, there's an ICE cooperation bill, there's video lottery terminals being discussed. So those are some of the things to watch for.

Terry: And we'll get to some of those items in just a moment. When it comes to spending priorities, the state might have more money to allocate — maybe even a billion-dollar budget surplus. How'd we end up with more money than projected, and what could it be used for?

Anderson: Yes. So, it's a $1 billion surplus for this current fiscal year, it's $400 million for the 2024-2025 fiscal year. So that's what they believe they have, and that's based on the assumption that we have a soft landing to the inflation problem. There was fears previously of a slow recession, but the state’s economy was more resilient than they expected. That's what caused North Carolina to get this billion dollars extra than anticipated. One thing lawmakers are considering is this Opportunity Scholarship Program. I mean, there's always the possibility of further tax cuts or changes to that, but the biggest thing I've heard has been the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Terry: And that's where I wanted to go next. The so-called school vouchers are a big issue, with the state increasing funds available for parents to send their kids to private schools. How much has the legislature already allocated to these private school vouchers in the coming years, and how much are they considering adding?

Anderson: Well, last year lawmakers approved an additional $250 million to the school voucher program, and this year they're considering adding another $300 million — they say it's necessary to fully fund it. The governor is obviously very critical of that. He sees it as a transfer of wealth from public schools to private schools. And lawmakers say, well, let's make parents be the deciders. Let's let them choose. And this is a sign that we need more money because this program is so popular.

Terry: A proposal to authorize four new casinos, including one in Rockingham, died on the vine last year. But it was sort of a to-be-continued, with some legislators indicating they're looking to bring the issue back. Do you think we'll see any more moves to expand legal gambling this session?

Anderson: Well, there's certainly conversations about it. Phil Berger, he's the Senate leader, and he was the main champion of casinos being added to North Carolina. He calls them rural tourism districts, saying it's more than just a casino — it’s also going to be restaurants, entertainment and other things. But he has said he's not intent on bringing this up this year.

The real conversation appears to be with video lottery terminals. There is some political appetite for that, but there's certainly social conservatives and even a lot of Democrats who oppose any expansion of gambling, saying it's predatory. It preys on the most economically vulnerable North Carolinians, so we'll have to see if there's movement on video lottery terminals. But I wouldn't place my wagers on casinos happening this year.

Terry: Gov. Cooper presented his own spending plan just before the session opened. My understanding is that it's not likely to go anywhere, since Republicans have a supermajority in both houses. But what's the governor, who is of course a Democrat, asking for?

Anderson: Yeah, his budget plan is basically dead on arrival. Republicans will say, ‘Thank you for your thoughts, governor, but we're gonna do what we want.’ But it’s still important because it can be a messaging tool for Democrats this election cycle. It also shows the Democratic Party's platform.

What the governor's calling for is 8.5% average pay raises for teachers and 5% for state workers. He also wants to adjust the tax code so individuals who earn more than $100,000 pay more in taxes than those who make less than six figures.

There's also a $2.5 billion school construction bond referendum he wants to go to voters. [There’s] $100 million for PFAS contamination, and he also wants a moratorium on public school dollars being transferred to private schools through the Opportunity Scholarship Program. So those are the biggest highlights.

Terry: What else are you keeping an eye on in the coming weeks?

Anderson: Well, a couple of big things.

There's diversity policy crackdowns that have happened, that UNC-Chapel Hill and lawmakers are kind of mulling the idea of whether there's something they can do statewide on that, and, sort of, pushing back on affirmative action policies in state government.

There's also a bill that would force local governments to cooperate with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE. That bill has previously gone up to the governor a couple of times and been vetoed by him. But now Republicans have a supermajority, so they're hoping for a different fate to that. Also, I don't think it's going to change, but there has been some fallout from public records law changes that lawmakers have made. It's highly unlikely that Republicans will tweak that, but certainly a policy fallout to watch for.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.