N.C. Senate backs $21B budget next year

The Associated Press

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RALEIGH – The N.C. Senate gave its initial approval Friday to a Republican spending plan for state government next year that promises big pay raises to teachers who give up job protections but also would derail GOP Gov. Pat McCrory’s Medicaid reform proposal.

The $21.2 billion plan for the year starting July 1 would give pay raises averaging more than 11 percent but with a catch: Teachers would have to first relinquish claims to tenure or “career status” and other experienced-based pay. Otherwise, they would remain on the current pay schedule.

A teacher with 20 years’ experience, for example, would receive base pay of $50,000 under the new schedule versus $43,633 under the current plan. North Carolina’s average teacher pay was last ranked 46th among the states and the District of Columbia.

N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said North Carolina’s average pay would near the middle of the pack if the schedule was carried out fully. Democratic and Republican majorities have given just one raise to teachers since 2008 in the Great Recession’s aftermath.

“Make no mistake about it – you vote against this budget, you’re voting against a substantial raise for teachers,” Berger said. He added, “You can dodge the issue, you can talk about other things. But the centerpiece of the budget is that raise.”

Only one Democrat – N.C. Sen. Gene McLaurin of Richmond County – joined all Republicans present in voting 32-15 for the plan. A final Senate vote was expected shortly after midnight, in keeping with parliamentary and constitutional requirements.

During the initial three-hour debate, other Democrats blasted the legislation for the way Republicans located $468 million to rework the pay schedule. Savings for nearly half the amount would come through eliminating money for local districts to hire 7,400 teaching assistants in all second- and third-grade classrooms. Funding for other education-related positions also would be eliminated.

“No teacher should have to choose between getting a pay increase and losing their teacher assistant,” said N.C. Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg. Democrats also recalled how a 2013 tax overhaul that cut income-tax rates means hundreds of millions of dollars won’t go into government coffers.

“This budget is trying to cloak your political vulnerability at the expense of our school kids,” N.C. Senate Minority Whip Josh Stein, D-Wake, said in a nod to the November N.C. General Assembly elections. Republicans gave no teacher raise last year.

The Republican House will next write its own adjustments to the second year of the two-year budget approved last summer. A N.C. House-Senate compromise before the new fiscal year begins would go to McCrory, who already expressed unhappiness with the Senate plan.

The Senate budget also tells McCrory’s health department to stop working on his Medicaid reform proposal announced two months ago.

Senate Republicans want to essentially start from scratch on reform and likely move Medicaid out of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. In the short term, senators would set aside $206 million more for Medicaid than McCrory’s budget did.

The measure also could eliminate Medicaid eligibility for more than 15,000 people. Many are elderly, blind or disabled while also receiving financial assistance to live in adult care or group homes.

“We don’t need to put gaping holes in that safety net,” said N.C. Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham. He offered an amendment that was defeated to restore the eligibility, and to require North Carolina to expand Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of people through the federal health care overhaul.

Republicans refused the expansion last year and did so again Friday, citing uncertain future costs to a Medicaid program that’s siphoned money away from other needs. “It’s time we start taking care of teachers and other portions of the budget,” said N.C. Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, one of the chief budget writers.

Republicans used a parliamentary procedure to block a vote on a Democratic amendment that would have kept the State Bureau of Investigation under the control of Democratic N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper. Under the bill, the SBI and State Crime Lab would sit under McCrory’s N.C. Department of Public Safety.

The Senate unanimously removed a provision that would have directed the University of North Carolina Board of Governors to draw up a plan to potentially close the historically black Elizabeth City State University, which has struggled recently with finances and leadership.