State

Senate panels OK North Carolina budget; it now goes to floor

Senate Republicans pushed their state government spending proposal for the next two years through several committees Wednesday, with the bill’s authors pitching familiar GOP themes about controlled spending, cutting taxes and saving for the next recession.

Republicans largely left out high-profile initiatives that new Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper recommended in his March budget and had been promoting around the state. The Senate GOP in its preliminary budget went far beyond what Cooper wanted in tax reductions, which contributed in part to spending $579 million less for the coming year than what Cooper proposed.

The Senate also proposes adding $363 million to the state’s saving reserve next year, bringing its total to over $1.8 billion.

“I know this budget doesn’t spend as much as some would like for us to spend,” Sen. Harry Brown of Onslow County, the Senate’s senior budget-writer, told colleagues before the Appropriations Committee vote. “But over the past several years, we’ve tried to manage the growth in government, and I think it’s worked well for us as we’ve moved forward to create more dollars that are available in the long run.”

The measure, which spends $22.9 billion for the year starting July 1, now heads to the Senate floor on Thursday for debate and the first of two recorded votes.

A top Democrat repeated longstanding complaints from the party’s legislators and Cooper, saying the GOP’s emphasis on tax reductions for corporations and the highest wage earners has cut into revenue for education spending, health care and other long-term needs.

“If we were to not implement those tax code changes, there’d be greater funds available to address much broader needs that we have as a state,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham County Democrat. He cited rural broadband access and infrastructure as examples. Republicans counter that 99 percent of taxpayers would pay less or no tax at all under their plan, which would cost more than $1 billion through mid-2019.

Cooper’s office released a list of items from the governor’s two-year budget plan that the Senate budget failed to include or fund at the same levels. Left out, for example, are Cooper’s proposals to pay tuition and fees for young community college students not covered by state or federal financial aid and provide $150 supply stipends for teachers.

The Senate budget “falls short of the full investment needed to support North Carolina’s rapid growth,” Cooper’s spokesman Ford Porter said in a memo to reporters. Senators did include a few items Cooper sought, including a special fund to help local governments build infrastructure to attract big companies.

The governor, however, has few options to get his way in other areas with the Republican-dominated General Assembly, which has veto-proof majorities.

Cooper can’t block a final budget if Republican legislators stay united. So the largest political fight likely will occur during House-Senate negotiations. The House is drawing up its own budget proposal.

Senate Republicans say their budget improves public education by raising average base school teacher salaries by 9.5 percent over two years and increasing public school funding by more than $600 million. Cooper proposed average 5 percent salary increases each year and wanted to spend about $250 million more.

The Senate budget debate began as the National Education Association released its annual nationwide review of teacher salary and school funding. The association estimates North Carolina’s per-pupil funding this school year will rank 43rd among the states and the District of Columbia, compared to 42nd last year. But the state’s average teacher pay ranking was calculated to rise from 41st last year to 35th this year.

The Senate budget also would:

▪  Create a new Department of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice out of the current Department of Public Safety. Juvenile justice and correction had their own Cabinet-level departments earlier this decade before a merger.

▪  End in late 2020 the practice of 16- and 17-year-olds being tried in adult criminal court for misdemeanor charges.

▪  Place a moratorium through 2020 on state permits for wind farm projects while lawmakers study whether more restrictions are needed to protect military installations.

▪  Phase out by 2025 “certificate of need” laws requiring state approval before hospitals and health facilities can offer more beds or build new locations.

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