Senate approves budget boosting pay for teachers, state employees

By: By Gary D. Robertson - Associated Press

RALEIGH — North Carolina budget alterations for next year received initial approval Wednesday by the state Senate.

GOP lawmakers who authored the changes emphasized increased public education spending and employee pay, while Democrats blasted both the content and process by which the adjustments came about.

On a near party-line vote, senators voted 36-14 for a $23.9 billion proposal that adjusts the second year of the two-year state government budget approved last June. Local Sen. Danny Britt joined all his fellow Republicans in voting in favor.

The spending plan starting July 1 would be nearly $900 million higher than the current year and benefits from another year of higher-than-project revenue collections. Public education spending grows by nearly $700 million.

There needs to be one more positive vote by the Senate and two by the House before it can go to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk. The second Senate vote and first House vote were expected Thursday. Cooper hasn’t said whether he’d veto the plan, but his own budget proposals on key issues were largely ignored. He vetoed the two-year plan last year, but Republicans quickly overrode him.

GOP legislators have emphasized average 6.5 percent pay raises for teachers along with hefty raises for principals, state troopers and correctional officers. And thousands of low-income full-time state employees would see their pay grow to the equivalent of $15 per hour, raising some salaries by close to 30 percent.

“This will be a huge raise for them and put them that we could say at a living wage,” said Sen. Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican and top budget writer, speaking during the floor debate.

Teacher pay in one form or another would increase for the fifth year in a row if approved.

Sen. Don Davis of Greene County was the only Democrat voting for the measure. Davis represents a region with lots of state employees. The state GOP said before Wednesday’s vote that efforts to defeat Davis would get special attention in the fall election if he voted against the plan.

Democrats were otherwise unified in opposing the measure and angry Republicans used parliamentary procedures to prevent any amendments to the GOP’s negotiated bill, forcing an up-or-down vote on the entire 267-page measure. It marked the first time in at least 45 years that rank-and-file legislators were unable to offer amendments during the state budget process.

It also meant Republicans wouldn’t have their own political problems having to defend “no” votes on Democratic amendments heading to November.

“The majority decided that an oyster bill deserved more open discussion than a $24 billion budget,” said Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, referring to legislation that got vigorous debate in committee earlier Wednesday. “Know that this budget is giving those who are watching what absolute power does.”

Otherwise, Democrats said Republicans didn’t do enough for teacher pay, for school safety upgrades and student support personnel in response to the Florida school shooting. They also said it didn’t go far enough for researching and cleaning up the state’s rivers and streams of little-known contaminants like GenX.

“This is a bad budget. It’s a bad budget for teachers, a bad budget for parents, a bad budget for student and it’s a bad budget for businesses,” said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat. He and other Democrats offered Cooper’s proposals on education and taxes as alternatives — he wanted $130 million for school safety improvement — but the GOP bill offered $35 million.

Cooper also wanted 8 percent average pay raises for teachers. He would have paid for it blocking an already-approved corporate income tax rate next January. And instead of giving all individual income tax filers a full pending rate decline to 5.25 percent next year, Cooper wanted a new bracket at the current rate on the highest wage earners. Republicans were never going to block the tax cuts.

The budget adjustments also include provisions to expand tax breaks to lure companies that create thousands of jobs in North Carolina. It could be attractive to a company such as Apple, which is strongly considering the state for a new corporate campus.

The bill funnels $241 million in lottery profits for local school construction. Republicans also want distribute lots of money to hundreds of nonprofits, local government and agencies and other entities — Democrats calculated nearly 350 earmarks totaling $104 million.

By Gary D. Robertson

Associated Press