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Start-up funding for WNC crime lab included

RALEIGH — With a new set of guidelines and a new budget director in tow, Gov. Pat McCrory released his spending plan for the next two years.

Gov. McCrory and his budget director, Lee Roberts, unveil the governor’s 2015 two-year budget plan in Raleigh. Kirk Ross/Carolina Public Press

Speaking to reporters at the state Joint Force Headquarters on Thursday, McCrory said the $21.5 billion plan was aimed at finding efficiencies within state government.

“Instead of looking at each department, each area as silos and renewing each department one line at a time, we looked at the bigger picture,” McCory said. As a result, he said, state spending will grow at a slower rate than the population.

The governor and Lee Roberts, who replaced Art Pope as state budget director, said the budget was “still tight,” but does not call for a raise in taxes. The plan does mirror a state Senate proposal that changes the gas tax formula and results in an additional $450 million in gas tax revenue.

The budget adds $47 million to the state’s rainy day fund, allocates $47 million for repairs and renovations to state buildings and sets aside a $175 million Medicaid risk reserve fund. McCory said that with the U.S. Supreme Court reviewing the Affordable Care Act and possible changes to the state Medicaid system in the works, the fund would give the state additional flexibility to react.

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There were several structural changes to the new budget, with the largest being a shift in what is defined under new spending, which now includes enrollment growth in public schools and state universities.

It adds $235 million to the public schools budget to hire a projected 1,400 new teachers, cover a proposed starting pay increase and fund $15 million in targeted raises for other teachers. The plan covers enrollment growth for the UNC system, but asks the system to find $26 million in savings, which is a little more than 1 percent of its overall budget.

McCrory’s budget does not propose across-the-board raises for teachers and state employees. Instead, the pay plan includes a bump for first year teachers to reach the goal of a $35,000 a year starting wage. Money for other teacher raises would be targeted.

State employees would continue to see longevity pay, and corrections and Highway Patrol officers would see a pay bump. An additional $82 million is set aside for a “salary exception fund” to attract and retain employees in high-demand fields.

McCrory said the approach to pay represents a change in philosophy for compensation for teachers and state employees.

“We’re really speaking in a different paradigm,” he said, “one that’s more market oriented and civil service oriented.”

(For comparison, a 1 percent increase in pay for state employees would cost $134 million, according to a recent fiscal analysis by the legislative staff.)

The budget takes into account a projected $271 million gap revenue shortfall, due mainly to lower than expected income tax collections. Fiscal analysts told a legislative panel last month that the drop was due to lower withholding rates and they expect to see an increase in April tax payments.

Roberts said the plan was based on consensus forecasts and that if by April there were indications that more revenue was coming, some of the plan could be revisited.

Restructuring under governor’s proposal

Two major department moves would take place under the plan.

A new state Department of Military and Veteran Affairs would be set up to oversee all program for active and retired military families.

And all state parks, aquariums and science museums, along with their 1,037 state employees, would move from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to the Department of Cultural Resources.

Among the Western North Carolina-related provisions in the governor’s plan is start-up money for the new Western Crime Lab in Henderson County, with $500,000 in state funds to draw a $500,000 federal match for equipment purchases. The lab is scheduled to open in April 2017.

McCrory also budgets $16.6 million to the new Broughton Hospital in Morganton, which is scheduled to open in December 2016.

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A Western North Carolina initiative to clean up streams in the region would also share in $5 million statewide for targeted water resources projects.

For the record: A summary of McCrory’s budget plan

Gov Pat McCrory 2015 State Budget Proposal (PDF)
Gov Pat McCrory 2015 State Budget Proposal (Text)

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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