(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 and Rep. Roger West (seated with cigar), at a House Appropriations meeting this week. Kirk Ross/Carolina Public Press

The North Carolina House of Representatives approved its version of the state budget including across-the-board pay hikes for teacher and state employees along with a staged increase in the personal income tax exemption.

The final vote on the budget Thursday was 103-12, the widest margin of victory in the House in several years. The plan calls for a 2 percent across-the-board raise plus a $500 bonus for all state employees, hikes in teachers salaries averaging 4.1 percent and a 1.6 percent cost of living adjustment for state retirees.

Rep. Roger West, R-Cherokee, who leaves office this year after eight terms, said the budget is off to a good start. He said the leadership had found the right balance of priorities.

“I think they did a good job,” West said. “And it was a good strong vote, too, very strong.”

The 12 no votes on the budget came mainly from House Democratic leaders, who said the bill fell short of what the state should be doing in areas like education and mental health. Many Democrats who voted for the $2.22 billion spending plan said they did so to support the raises and to send a message to the Senate that the House was unified.

During debate, Wake County Democrat Darren Jackson said he would vote for the budget, but disagreed with the spending target set by Senate and House negotiators at the start of the budget process. “I hope you don’t go out and make a big deal about how bipartisan the vote was, because our members who are voting with you are doing so to show strength in numbers to the Senate.”

Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, was among the dozen Democratic no votes and the only member of the WNC delegation to vote against the budget bill.

She said last year’s tax cuts had constrained to the budget and as a result this year’s adjustments didn’t do enough for teachers, improving mental health services and in school funding.

“We are essentially restraining the recovery in North Carolina that other states are enjoying at this time,” Fisher said during debate on Wednesday afternoon. “This appears to me to be nothing more than an election year band-aid.”

Buncombe County Democratic Reps. John Ager and Brian Turner voted for the budget as did Republican Reps. Josh Dobson, Mike Hager, Jonathan Jordan, Chuck McGrady, Chris Whitmire and West. Democratic Rep. Joe Sam Queen was one of five representatives who had excused absences and did not vote.

In a statement released by House leaders after the vote, McGrady, one of four main budget writers said was pleased with the overwhelming vote.

“This budget funds teacher raises, while allowing some very targeted tax cuts. I’m quite happy with the balance that has been struck, and that is why I’m happy to support this budget,” McGrady said.

DuPont Forest, conservation funds see boost

Whitmire, a Transylvania County Republican, who is also stepping down after this session, said the budget includes a significant plus for the region through a major infusion of support for the DuPont State Recreational Forest. The plan includes $3 million for new restrooms and other infrastructure.

“People are literally loving it to death,” Whitmire said. “And with Cascade Lake being closed this summer it’s going to have an even greater use rate.”

Getting the funding set up in this year’s budget cycle work was key to starting work on the much-needed infrastructure, Whitmire said. “By having that money in there it will be able more quickly be able to build restrooms at Hooker Falls and surface parking lots,” he said.

Whitmire said the new money and a deal struck last year to use part of the so called “doughnut hole,” the 420 acres in the middle of the forest that is still privately owned, for a National Guard and first responders training facility, should make a big contribution to the local economy.

McGrady, one the main budget chairs, also pointed to the DuPont funding as an important plus for the region. The budget includes nine new Forest Service positions in addition to the money for infrastructure. Another important change, he said, is a special provision that allows the recreational forest, the only one of its kind in the state, to apply for grants through the state’s Parks and Recreational Trust Fund.

Both McGrady and Whitmire said the budget bill avoids plans to impose a fee on visitors to the forest to pay for the additional staff, which would have had a bigger effect on local residents who frequent the forest.

Conservation funds

McGrady said he was also glad to make good on a promise to devote at least some of any additional spending toward conservation funds. The budget holds the line on an additional $6 million in spending approved last year for the Parks and Recreational Trust Fund and adds an additional $5 million for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. Both funds have played a major role in land conservation in WNC.

Other increases include $1 million in additional funds for farmland preservation and a $3.8 million increase toward sewer system repairs.

“I think the General Assembly is looking to make sure we fund water and sewer infrastructure,” McGrady said.

Also added were funds to the state’s Natural Heritage Program, which lost both positions. Much of its funding over the last two budget cycles saw a complete turnaround this year with restoration of $489,750 in funding and 6.2 positions.

In budget briefings, McGrady said the restoration of funds was needed to allow the program to keep up with projects around the state that require its review.

Will Morgan, Director of Government Relations for the Nature Conservancy, said the program is essential in assisting conservation groups as well as state agencies. He said the Clean Water Management Trust Fund uses a Natural Heritage score in part of its determination of the value of projects. Morgan said the additional funding will allow the program to hire back laid-off workers and work through its backlog.

“I’d say this is the best budget we’ve gotten out of the House in years in terms of conservation,” Morgan said in a recent interview.

CSI Edneyville and more

Start up funding for next years opening of the new Western Crime Lab in Edneyville and additional money to continue work whittling down a backlog of toxicology and DNA testing are also in the budget.

The budget includes $301,000 in recurring money and $1.1 million in one-time money for supplies, HVAC and utilities and maintenance at the new site in Henderson County.

Another $2 million is set aside for continued forensic analysis to continue reducing the testing backlog ahead of the lab’s opening.

The budget also includes some additional capital spending including $3 million for a new plane for the Forest Service to aid in fighting fires in hard to reach areas of the mountain.

Other WNC-related items in the budget include $100,000  in one-time money for the Western Women’s Business Center and $1 million in planning money for four regional medical examiner centers including one in Buncombe County.

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Kirk Ross was the former capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. To contact the Carolina Public Press newsroom, email info@carolinapublicpress.org.

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