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NC Senate Gives Initial Nod To $21.5B State Budget

NC General Assembly; State Legislature.
Dave Crosby
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Statue Legislature Building

The North Carolina Senate gave preliminary approval on Wednesday afternoon to a two-year budget that would cut funding for thousands of public school teaching assistant positions, and would make significant policy changes to the state's tax code and Medicaid program.

The proposed $21.5 billion budget, which represents an almost 2 percent increase from the current year and was approved by Republicans along a party-line vote of 30-19, is scheduled for a final vote on Thursday.

The House of Representatives has already approved a $22.1 billion budget proposal, representing an overall 5 percent increase. Republican leaders will have to negotiate a compromise before they send the plan to Gov. Pat McCrory.

Fewer Teacher Assistants

Early Wednesday, Lacy Autry left his home in Lumberton, and drove to the Genera Assembly building in Raleigh. It was two hours before senators debated their budget - two hours to change their minds.

“I’m sure that some has already made up their mind, but all we can do is just hope,” he said.

He hopes that Republicans don’t cut funding for teacher assistants like him. He and about 15 others teacher assistants  moved from door to door, shaking hands with representatives and senators.

Under the senate’s budget plan, Republicans would cut millions of dollars in teacher assistant funding, enough to fund about 8,500 teachers over the next two years.

“It’s going to remove extra eyes, it’s going to remove extra hands, it’s going to remove the ability of all our children to get a proper education,” Autry argued.

When senators began debating their budget plan on Wednesday, Republicans argued they’re offering an important tradeoff–they want cut teacher assistants so they have more money to bring on more teachers.

“What we’re talking about here is reducing class size,” said Sen. Dan Soucek, a Republican from Boone.

Soucek says the extra teachers would allow some elementary classrooms to eventually have a 1:15 teacher-student ratio.

“The statistics show that the best thing you could do is get a great, highly-effective teacher in those K-3 classrooms,” he said.

But Democrats argue the state needs both: More teachers and more teacher assistants. They also have an issue with the Senate’s plan to raise teacher pay. The boosts just aren’t enough, says Sen. Josh Stein, a Democrat from Wake County.

“Teachers over 25 years get a zero-percent increase. In other words, that means nothing,” Stein argued.

The Senate’s plan gives an average four percent boost to teachers. Senate Leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County, says there’s reason why most of that extra money goes to those early in their careers.   

“We’re losing the teachers in year 4 and 5 and 6 and 8, so we want to do everything we can to entice and encourage,” Berger said.

Senate and House leaders, as well as the Governor all want to raise the starting salary to $35,000. But they disagree on some of the finer points of teacher raises, and have different philosophies over what to do about teacher assistants. Education is often a sticking point in negotiations as it represents more than half of the state’s budget.

Taxes and Medicaid

As Senators debated the budget, a few dozen protesters crowded outside the chamber’s brass doors. Most protesters had shown up for Moral Monday rallies over the previous two years.

“We will be judged as a culture on how we care for the least of these,” said Leslie Boyd from Asheville. “Jesus said it in Matthew, and there are a lot of people who say it outside of religion, that it is immoral to let people suffer when there’s plenty to go around.”

North Carolina is expected to end the year with a surplus of more than $400 million. But large portions of the budget don’t have to do with spending. Instead, lawmakers want the state to collect less money.

“You know, some folks like to refer to reduction in taxes as tax giveaways,” Berger said. “You know, the folks that pay that, they think it’s their money. You know what, I think they’re right. It is their money. And the more we can leave in their hands, the better off they are, the better off we are as a state, and the more prosperous we’re going to be.”

The plan would lower corporate taxes to three percent and would cut personal income taxes to 5.5 percent. To make up for lost revenue, the state would tax more goods and services, like veterinary services and advertising. But Sen. Dan Blue, a Democrat from Wake County, says that’s the wrong way to encourage economic growth.

"It is better to use any excess revenue or whatever you might call it, you might call it taxes or whatever the giveaways that we're doing to large corporations, to invest more deeply in education,” Blue said.

The Senate plan also includes a dramatic overhaul of the state’s Medicaid program. Lawmakers have been complaining for years over the growing cost of Medicaid. But, like the tax provisions, if the overhaul is approved today, it will become a major point of contention between House and Senate leaders as they negotiate a final budget.

Reema Khrais joined WUNC in 2013 to cover education in pre-kindergarten through high school. Previously, she won the prestigious Joan B. Kroc Fellowship. For the fellowship, she spent a year at NPR where she reported nationally, produced on Weekends on All Things Considered and edited on the digital desk. She also spent some time at New York Public Radio as an education reporter, covering the overhaul of vocational schools, the contentious closures of city schools and age-old high school rivalries.
Jorge Valencia has been with North Carolina Public Radio since 2012. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, Jorge studied journalism at the University of Maryland and reported for four years for the Roanoke Times in Virginia before joining the station. His reporting has also been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, and the Baltimore Sun.
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