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Calls for teacher raises, no ‘radical’ change to tax code

(From top left) Former McDowell County Representative Mitch Gillespie, who is an adviser to House Speaker Tim Moore, confers with budget co-chair Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson) and Rep. Roger West (R-Cherokee) seated with cigar), at a House Appropriations meeting this week. Kirk Ross/Carolina Public Press

RALEIGH — In a vote that diverged from the party-line splits of the past several years, the House approved a $22.1 billion biennial budget for North Carolina by a vote of 93 to 23 on Friday.

Voting against the bill were 11 Republicans, including many of the chamber’s more conservative members, and 12 of its more liberal Democrats, including two from Western North Carolina, Reps. Susan Fisher (D-Buncombe) and Joe Sam Queen (D-Haywood).

The bill drew broad support because of what it does and for what it does not do.

It includes funding for enrollment growth and across-the-board raises for teacher and state employees, a significant bump in transportation spending and doubles the funding for grants through the Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund.

State employees would see a 2 percent raise and retirees would get a 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment. Teachers would see raises ranging from 2 percent to 6 percent.

But unlike recent years, the budget does not offer any radical change to the tax code, nor does it make major shifts in the structure of state government, which had become a kind of new normal.

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The bill does build in contingencies for a bond referendum proposed by Gov. Pat McCrory to raise money for transportation projects and repair to state buildings, but does not mandate a vote.

It also holds off on the governor’s plan to move the state park system and science museums from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources. Instead, the House’s budget calls for a study and plan to be developed by February 2016.

Getting to a vote was no easy chore.

The last vote on the budget took place after midnight Friday, roughly 11 hours from the time the debate began Thursday afternoon. During the floor debate and the two days of committee hearings prior, close to 200 amendments were filed. Like the budget itself, many that passed did so with bipartisan support.

One early example saw Transylvania County Republican Rep. Chris Whitmire urge on support for Wake County Democrat Yvonne Holley’s successful amendment to add a $1 million appropriation for a new program to help stock fresh fruits and vegetables in corner stores in the state’s food deserts. Whitmire, who co-chaired a task force on food deserts last year, said he had seen successful examples and that the plan could help rural regions as well as cities.

(Left to right) Reps. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson) and Chris Whitmire (R-Transylvania), go over an amendment during the discussion over the proposed House version of the state budget. Kirk Ross/Carolina Public Press

Local and WNC impact

In an email exchange with Carolina Public Press, Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican who was one of four main chairs of the House Appropriations Committee, said he thinks the biggest benefits the House budget offers to Western North Carolina are found in the boost in education funding to keep up with enrollment growth as well as raises for teachers.

McGrady said maintaining that trend will depend on the economy.

“If the economy continues to improve, that will be reflected in state revenues,” he said. “We have to be able to invest in our employees, including teachers.”

McGrady also pointed to capital spending at WNC’s public universities — Appalachian State University, UNC Asheville and Western Carolina University —  and the additional money in the clean water and parks funds, as positive for the western region.

The ‘no’ votes coming from legislators in the WNC delegation said the plan was not fairly balanced.

Queen said the budget helped corporations while not doing enough for families still struggling from the recession.

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Fisher offered an amendment to delay a scheduled corporate tax cut to pay for a bigger round of raises. She later warned House members that the 30 percent hike in N.C. Department of Motor Vehicle fees are going to come as unpleasant surprise to many.

The budget bill now moved to the Senate, which will vote the bill down and substitute its own version. The two chambers would then begin to work out their differences in a conference committee. Either a new budget or a continuing spending resolution must be in place by July 1.

WNC items

A new $9 million Science/Stem facility at Western Carolina University, $70 million in bonds for an Appalachian State Health Sciences Building and $1.6 million in planning money for a Western School of Science and Math are among the big-ticket budget items specifically for WNC.

The bond money for ASU would be in place should a bond program pushed by the governor not win approval by the voters or not be voted on until after May 2016.

Other WNC-specific items in the budget include $858,000 each year for the North Carolina Arboretum for a project with the Bent Creek Institute and the Germplasm Repository at Asheville. It also includes funding for a new administrative law judge for the western region.

UNC Asheville benefits from one special provision in the budget that adds it to a list of smaller UNC campuses that are prevented from seeing further budget reductions by the UNC system, which ordinarily has broad flexibility in shifting money.

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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