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Hise moves to eliminate driver’s ed requirement

RALEIGH — There are a few things in doubt about the Senate’s version of North Carolina’s biennial state budget, and one of them is not whether the chamber will pass it. Debate on the Senate plan is scheduled for today (Wednesday) and Thursday.

The $21.5 billion budget represents slightly less than a 2 percent increase in spending over last year. Unlike the House’s state budget proposal, the Senate plan offers no across-the-board raises for teachers and state employees. Early and mid-career teachers would see the bulk of the increase, and the starting salary would rise to $35,000. Veteran teachers would see less of an annual boost. Teachers with 25 years experience or more would get a one-time bonus, but not a pay raise. The plan also lowers class sizes in grades K-3, but continues to cut funding for teaching assistants. In unveiling the plan, Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow, said many of the roughly 5,000 teaching assistant positions eliminated were unfilled.

The Senate proposal also moves faster on structural changes for Medicaid and shifts spending priorities for the state lottery.

Taken as a whole, the Senate plan leaves a wide gulf in funding and policy changes from the House version that was passed in late May. On Tuesday, House leaders hinted strongly that a continuing resolution would be needed to fund state government when the new fiscal year starts on July 1.

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And critics of the plan have focused on the Senate’s intent to move ahead with additional tax cuts instead of paying for raises, infrastructure and other priorities.

In a statement released after the budget announcement, Rodney Ellis, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said that the plan shows misplaced priorities.

“Instead of using the opportunity of a surplus budget to make critical investments in public education, the Senate majority chose to decimate the state’s teacher assistants,” Ellis said.

Although the spending targets are locked in, the bill is still subject to additional changes, and on Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee worked through a dozen amendments before reporting out the bill.

Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell

Among them was a move by Sen. Ralph Hise, R-McDowell, to eliminate the requirement for driver’s education classes to obtain a license. The change would require more adult supervision and tougher testing for younger drivers before they could move up to a higher level license.

The amendment was in reaction to $350-per-student fee for the course, which was used in the budget to offset a reduction in money for driving education by the Highway Fund.

Hise said the plan allows families to opt out of paying the fee and still get adequate training time behind the wheel.

Also on Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee signed off on the tax section of the budget. The plan would make many services, including pet care, car repairs and renovations, subject to sales taxes, while reducing corporate and individual tax rates.

Spending proposal’s impact in Western North Carolina

One area both the House and Senate agreed on was a big increase in spending for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which, in recent years, assisted in backing several mountain conservation and water restoration projects. The Senate plan allocates $44.7 million to the fund for next two years.

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The Senate also differs with the House and sides with Gov. Pat McCrory over a proposal to move the state parks system from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources. The Senate wants to go ahead with the move by creating a newly named Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

The plan also gives the new department the authority to change the fee structure for park use.

Also under the Senate’s proposed spending plan:

• The Mountain Area Health Education Center would receive $5.9 million per year for surgery and family medicine residences;
• UNC Asheville would be one of four institutions protected from further budget reductions by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors;
• Funding would be cut for the energy center at Appalachian State University;
• Alcohol Law Enforcement and State Bureau of Investigation offices in the Asheville region would be consolidated in a new Asheville facility; and
• $2 million in funding would be provided for additional repairs and improvements at the Western Agricultural Center.

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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