New N.C. Senate offer tries to unravel budget knot

The Associated Press

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RALEIGH — Another solution to unravel North Carolina’s budget knot was proposed Tuesday, this time by Senate Republicans offering 8 percent average pay raises for teachers but retaining the elimination of funding for other classroom personnel.

Senate negotiators rolled out a $21.2 billion spending plan for the current fiscal year that gives lower average raises than the more than 11 percent they had stuck to for weeks. House Republicans and GOP Gov. Pat McCrory have backed a 6 percent plan in recent days, saying 11 percent would result in cuts elsewhere that were too deep.

Instead of eliminating funding for teacher assistants for second and third grade, as in its earlier proposals, the Senate would retain money for second grade assistants and largely backed the House’s position on offering $1,000 raises to most rank-and-file state workers, not $809 in the Senate’s previous offers.

“I think this proposal probably lets the House win maybe a few more times than the Senate wins,” said Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, the lead Senate negotiator, said during a public meeting with House budget negotiators. “This is a serious compromise, I think, on the Senate side to try to move this forward.”

The two chambers have been exchanging offers over the past two weeks to try and complete adjustments for the second year of the two-year budget that began July 1. The dialogue has been prickly at times between the two chambers, with senators walking out of one meeting last week and being a no-show at another meeting Monday. The negotiations have been more open compared to recent years.

“Having these meetings in the public just kind of shows you what happens behind closed doors,” Brown said.

McCrory, who threatened to veto any plan that contained an 11 percent teacher pay raise or any plan similar to what the Senate previously proposed, said there was “positive dialogue” during a lunch meeting Tuesday with Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg.

House counterparts thanked Brown for the offer but still questioned the continued loss of teacher assistants in third grade. School districts also would receive one-time funds for the second-grade assistants in the Senate plan, meaning administrators couldn’t count on the money in the 2015-16 school year.

About 20 percent of the roughly $450 million in teacher assistant funds given to districts this past school year were used to pay for classroom materials and other personnel, including teachers, as the state allows, according to Tillis’ office, citing Department of Public Instruction data.

And while the Senate does restore Medicaid eligibility for medically fragile individuals with slightly higher incomes than conventional Medicaid thresholds, thousands of people currently living in adult care homes could still lose their services.

“Some concern would still be in play,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, senior chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Tillis asked Brown whether senators would be willing to give more flexibility to school districts in how they would want to distribute teacher pay raises as a way to resolve an impasse. Still, Tillis said, “You’ve all done great work. I appreciate the movement.”

In a release, the governor said he was encouraged by public discussion about giving school districts more spending flexibility. The Senate’s proposal doesn’t contain McCrory’s initiative to let districts experiment with merit-pay programs, but it does consolidate the current 36-step experience-based teacher salary schedule down to six as McCrory proposed.

“There are still a lot of moving parts in the education budget that will have to be worked through,” Brown said.