RALEIGH — State Sen. Michael Walters, who represents Robeson and Columbus counties, said this morning that the $21.1 billion budget passed by the Senate early today is just another example of the “rural-urban divide” that exists when it comes to funding for state programs and services.
Walters had an “excused absence” when the Senate voted 33-10 with no discussion to pass the budget shortly before 1 a.m. today. The vote followed a marathon week of crafting and debating the spending deal.
Although the budget gives teachers raises and funnels $113 million to kindergarten and college classrooms statewide, Walters said he would have trouble voting for the spending plan.
“It’s not that I don’t support teacher pay and other issues including Medicaid,” he said. “It’s just that I’m concerned about where the funding is coming from. The burden for funding is being pushed down from the state to the local districts and in rural areas like Robeson County we don’t have the industry and tax base to support this.”
The House is scheduled to take preliminary votes on the budget today, with a final vote likely early Saturday morning. Both chambers have Republican supermajorities and the spending plan negotiated over several weeks with House members is expected to pass easily.
The budget also includes vouchers allowing children to attend private and religious schools with taxpayer money and maintains current spending on the state’s public university system. Most state employees get a $1,000 annual raise and five extra vacation days. Medicaid provider rates were cut. Child care subsidies were reduced.
Senate leader Phil Berger said the budget reflects a state still righting itself from the Great Recession. He credited tough choices by Republican lawmakers since winning legislative majorities in 2010.
“We’ve been digging out of a hole for four years now, and we’re just about out,” said Berger, R-Rockingham.
The losers in the 2014-15 spending plan for the year that started a month ago include Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat looking ahead to challenging Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in two years. His agency is losing $33 million and nearly 450 full-time positions — about 40 percent of his agency — as lawmakers move the State Bureau of Investigation to an agency headed by a McCrory appointee. Critics in both major political parties said they were concerned the SBI could lose the independence needed for an agency that investigates public corruption and other crimes.
“We’re just creating a new bureaucracy,” Walters said.
McCrory must veto the entire budget or allow it to become law. He has not indicated his intent but said his initial impression was “positive.”
The plan uses $620 million in savings from the previous year. Lawmakers this year needed to cover the $282 million cost of higher salaries for public school teachers and tax collections that are hundreds of millions of dollars below expectations. Legislative staffers last week estimated the effect of income tax cuts approved last year will be $680 million this year, greater than the $475 million previously estimated.
Nearly $42 million more will be spent this year to reduce class sizes in kindergarten to 18 children per teacher and to 17 students per teacher in first grade, an increase of 760 positions. Teaching assistants, whose jobs were threatened, are preserved. Funding for the Teaching Fellows program, which gives college scholarships to students in exchange for working as educators, is eliminated.
Teachers, now among the lowest paid nationally, get raises ranging from 0.3 percent for the most senior educators to nearly 19 percent for those in their fifth year. School administrators will receive about $800 more while office workers and other non-certified staff receive $500.
Critics like Ed Bermudez of Pittsboro and Susan Cummings of Cary said they were unimpressed by Republican lawmakers who they blame for cutting education funding last year and restoring some of it ahead of this year’s elections.
“The raise is just a political ploy to make people think that they care, but teachers are still exiting and going to other states” where they can get better pay, Cummings said.
The budget restores $11.8 million cut last year to account for lower public school enrollment as about 2,500 students used a new voucher program to move to private or religious schools. Attorneys trying to block the voucher plan argued the cut was evidence that lawmakers were transferring public funds to private schools.
Weeks before the $10 million program launches this academic year, lawmakers also provided included $840,000 in the budget to expand it.
— Set up an education endowment fund which can collect donations from corporations and people who want to increase teacher pay.
— Create a second choice in standard license plates. The slogan “First in Flight” has been on North Carolina plates for three decades. Vehicle owners could also choose one that says “First in Freedom,” honoring the early demands of North Carolina leaders for American independence in 1775 and 1776.
— Set aside $186 million for Medicaid contingencies. The state spends $3.5 billion annually to treat 1.7 million Medicaid recipients, and the program has had almost annual cost overruns for years.
— Establish a $10 million grant fund to attract films, TV shows and commercials, replacing a tax credit that last year cost the state $61 million.
— Ban individuals or state agencies from use of a drone to conduct surveillance without permission. There are exceptions for media covering news or public events. Police could use drones to respond to the high risk of a terrorist attack, to prevent “imminent danger” to life, or to search for missing persons.
Staff writer Bob Shiles contributed to this report.