UPDATE: Asheville-related bills, which are mentioned below, were not heard today, but are expected to be discussed next week.
From cuts to economic development and museum programs to additional funds for trout fisheries and DOT maintenance facilities, Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed budget reveals how Western North Carolina would fare if the suggested statewide spending plan is approved.
In remarks made at the old state Capital on Wednesday, McCrory said his $20.6 billion budget plan focuses on fixing what’s broken in state government while rebuilding recession-depleted reserve funds and investing in education.
Under the plan, state employees would see a 1 percent raise and the state would hire about 1,800 new teachers, while eliminating support for teaching assistants in the 2nd and 3rd grades.
The statewide university system would also take a hefty cut of close to $140 million over the biennium. While out-of-state tuition would be allowed to rise, tuition for North Carolina residents would be frozen at current levels.
McCrory said he wants to refill the state’s reserve funds, which have been used to cover shortfalls for the past several budget cycles. On the revenue side, the governor proposes to eliminate the estate tax and anticipates any potential tax reform package to be revenue-neutral.
Democrats were quick to rebut the proposal, saying the it piles cuts on top of reductions and shifts more of the cost of state government onto middle class families while doing little to create jobs.
“I’m particularly disturbed that we’re not seeing anything in here that leads to jobs,” Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt (D-Asheville) said at a press conference after the governor’s presentation. Nesbitt said the way the budget was drawn up hides the impact of education reductions because it uses one-time cuts made last year as the starting point for this year.
“The cuts are much deeper than they appear on the surface,” Nesbitt said.
He also raised concerns about the proposed budget’s impact on rural parts of the state because of the diversion of dedicated revenues for the Golden Leaf Foundation and cuts to the North Carolina Rural Center.
At a briefing for legislators held Thursday by State Budget Director Art Pope, Rep. Susan Fisher (D-Asheville) pressed Pope on the plan to eliminate teaching assistants for 2nd- and 3rd-grade classrooms given the goal of having all students able to read by 3rd grade.
“I’m seeing where we have only allotted (funding) for K-1,” she said, “and I’m wondering what the thinking was and how many jobs we’re talking about?”
Pope said there was debate about the effectiveness of assistants in the higher grades. He said about 3,200 teaching assistant positions would be lost under the plan, but that the savings would be used to pay for more teachers.
Some of the WNC impacts of the McCrory budget include:
• Tuition: In-state tuition at UNC system campuses would be frozen at current levels, but out-of-state tuition would rise, including hikes of 6 percent at UNC Asheville and Western Carolina University.
• Cultural attractions: The birthplace of Zebulon Baird Vance, in Weaverville, and the Museum of History’s Old Fort/Mountain Gateway center, in Old Fort, would be among four historic sites to be shuttered and staff laid off to save a total of $498,712. Though closed, the sites would still be maintained according to the budget plan.
• Western Crime Lab: Although legislation authorizing construction of a new Western Crime Lab has yet to be passed, McCrory’s budget anticipates adding equipment and personnel to both state crime labs as well as funds to increase DNA and toxicology testing. It also adds new equipment and funding for methamphetamine programs.
• Pass-through funding: The budget cuts money the state grants to several nonprofits and organizations. The state’s Regional Economic Development Centers, including the Fletcher-based AdvantageWest, would see reductions, as would the state’s Grassroots Science Museum programs at the Highlands Nature Center, Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute, WNC Nature Center and Colburn Earth Science Museum, both in Asheville, and Kidsenses Children’s Interactive Museum, in Rutherfordton.
• Wildlife resources: The main state hatchery for the brown trout in Table Rock would see a $500,000 upgrade and the budget also sets aside $100,000 in planning money for a new cold water hatchery aimed at increasing the trout population.
• Transportation facilities: The budget includes construction funds for a $1.2 million equipment shop in Clay County, $1.5 million each for road and bridge maintenance centers in Mitchell and McDowell counties, $1.9 million for maintenance facilities in Graham County and $266,000 for a salt storage facility at Lake Junaluska.
Asheville-area bills coming up
Two controversial bills covering zoning-authority and revenue-raising rules for the city of Asheville get another hearing this week.
House Bill 224, which eliminates Asheville’s extraterritorial jurisdiction authority and transfers planning and zoning for its ETJ to Buncombe County, and House Bill 252, which repeals the city’s ability to use 5 percent of water and sewer authority revenues for capital projects, are scheduled to be heard this (Tuesday) morning by the House Finance Committee. A third bill that would allow Buncombe County to set rules for demolition and construction at an industrial park on Sweeten Creek Road is also on scheduled to be discussed at the meeting.
Another handful of Asheville- and Buncombe County-related bills are also on the way.
Last week, Asheville Republicans Reps. Tim Moffitt and Nathan Ramsey introduced a bill to create a joint city-county parks and recreational authority. The two also introduced legislation giving Buncombe County greater flexibility in using its school capital fund.
And Moffitt, Ramsey and Rep. Michele Presnell (R-Burnsville) introduced legislation clearing the way for two county commissioners to serve on the governing board of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College.