- Associated Press - Thursday, September 10, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Republican leaders at the General Assembly came closer to a final agreement Thursday on a budget deal that would end a fiscal stalemate that began in June and has led to the longest budget-writing session in 14 years.

House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said he and Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, had resolved almost all the issues that couldn’t be resolved by the top budget-writers serving under them.

The two leaders and respective lieutenants met off and on for several hours at the Legislative Building on Thursday afternoon, and Berger said afterward no agreement had been reached. Talks with Moore will resume Friday morning, Berger said.

“I remain optimistic that there’s a way for us to resolve things,” he said.

Even if a deal is struck Friday, it will still be early next week before the two chambers release budget documents and hold two required votes needed before the legislation goes to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

GOP leaders are aiming to get the final two-year plan done before a stopgap spending measure expires Sept. 18. It’s the third “continuing resolution” to operate state government since failing to pass a budget before the fiscal year began July 1. The last time it took this long to complete budget work in an odd-numbered year - when the entire two-year plan is written - was 2001.

Moore and Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, co-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said separately that Republicans had agreed to fund driver’s education and teacher assistants in the public schools, but the final details on spending the money were being worked out.

The Senate budget approved in June would have eliminated funding for thousands of assistants and would have eliminated the requirement that teenagers take driver’s ed. The House plan had money for both programs.

The two sides also closed in on deals about two ancillary items related to the budget.

Brown and Moore said negotiators had essentially agreed on separate legislation to overhaul how the state pays to treat its Medicaid patients. Although Moore said that bill would be considered later, the budget was expected to contain some directions and funding as the Medicaid program transitions more toward managed care.

The two leaders also said the chambers had agreed there would be a bond package, with Moore adding a statewide referendum to approve the debt sometime next year. Berger said Thursday evening the amount of the bonds had been finalized but he declined to provide the number. Moore said Thursday morning that there was earlier agreement to borrow $2 billion. Money is set aside in the budget to pay down debt.

Passing the Medicaid and bond legislation - both sought by McCrory - will still need to be completed before lawmakers go home for good this year.

One thing that won’t be taken up this year is any effort to overhaul North Carolina’s pension system for public employees and teachers, according to Moore and Apodaca. Lawmakers had been having “informal discussions” about whether future workers should be moved over time from the current defined benefit retirement plans, which give fixed monetary payments to retirees, to defined contribution plans, in which workers receive money to invest themselves.

The pension system is managed by State Treasurer Janet Cowell, a Democrat. Spokesman Schorr Johnson said Thursday that Cowell or her office had not been part of any discussions this session “to drastically change the pension.”

At a Thursday news conference, House Minority Leader Larry Hall, D-Durham, blasted Republicans for holding “secret” talks about a pension change without an open process and study.

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