AP NEWS

North Carolina House gives initial OK to Republican budget

May 2, 2019

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina House that’s more politically balanced compared to the past several years gave initial approval Thursday to a state budget proposal penned by Republicans.

The House voted 61-54 for the two-year spending plan after debating for nearly four hours and considering more than 30 amendments. A final House vote is expected Friday before the measure heads to the Senate, which will pass its own competing plan later this month.

GOP budget writers highlighted money in the nearly $24 billion House plan for the year starting July 1 for public schools, sexual assault kit testing and government construction projects. There are some corporate and individual income tax breaks in the two-year budget, while retailers would be ordered to collect sales taxes from more online transactions they help orchestrate.

Republicans argued their spending plan builds on previous GOP budgets they contend have led to a robust economy and record rainy-day reserves. They also point to average public school teacher pay figures that have moved up the national rankings.

“The good news abounds, and we need to continue to strengthen our foundation even more,” said Rep. Donny Lambeth, a Forsyth County Republican and senior budget co-chairman. “There’s a lot in this budget that will move our state forward.”

Democrats gained nine additional House seats in the November elections, ending the GOP’s veto-proof control going back to 2013. But House Republicans still hold a 65-55 seat majority, meaning most of the amendments pushed by Democrats still failed to get enough votes.

A parliamentary effort also fell short by the chamber’s Democrats to send the bill back to a committee to add provisions directing that Medicaid be expanded to hundreds of thousands of additional low-income people.

But House Minority Leader Darren Jackson of Wake County acknowledged the new political environment, in which Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper will have more negotiating power in the final budget. Cooper’s vetoes can be upheld as long as all Democrats stayed united. Democrats made similar electoral gains in the Senate.

“Medicaid expansion is our No. 1 priority this year, and you’ve also heard the governor say it’s his No. 1 priority,” Jackson said, laying out a scenario in which ultimately he expects Cooper to veto a final Republican budget sent to him lacking expansion. “And then we’re going to sit down and talk.”

Before the floor debate, Cooper already panned the House budget, emphasizing through a spokesman that it gives up more corporate tax revenues — through lower franchise tax rates — that could have gone to increase teacher pay raises more than what Republicans offer.

Republicans say average teacher pay raises would go up 4.6% next year under the plan, but they don’t take effect until January — usually increases begin when school starts. And the pay scale only improves for teachers with 16 or more years of experience. Republicans say they have emphasized pay raises for less experienced teachers in previous years.

The North Carolina Association of Educators, which led a massive teachers march and rally outside the Legislative Building on Wednesday , demanded 5% raises for all teachers and school support staff.

“The proposed pay scales are nothing more than a shell game designed for political expediency at the expense of solving actual educational needs,” association President Mark Jewell said Thursday in a news release.

House Democrats did manage some budget changes. With help from a few Republicans, they were able to eliminate a $1 million pilot project whereby at-risk 4-year-olds in up to 10 school districts would participate in a “virtual” pre-kindergarten program that involved online curriculum. Critics questioned the efficacy of the program and screen time for children. The $1 million was instead earmarked for additional school grants to provide services for students in behavioral crisis.

The budget bill, which spends about 3% more than the current-year’s spending plan, already had located $50 million next year for grants for districts in part to hire school-based police officers and mental health support personnel, and to pay for school safety equipment and training.