(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 last May. Kirk Ross/Carolina Public Press

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RALEIGH — Legislators begin budget hearings this week and take up final votes on an early round of bills after a slow start to the 2017 session.

Joint House and Senate appropriations subcommittees will get their first look at spending priorities and options Tuesday morning.

At a briefing last week the consensus forecast for the 2017-218 biennium showed revenues for 2017 are $520.5 million ahead of projections and $494.1 million ahead of estimates for 2018. The state should end up this year with a surplus of $552.5 million, according to the projections.

Forecasters said major budget pressures this year include public school and university enrollment growth, additions to Medicaid, recommendations to shore up the state retirement and pension funds, teach pay increases and disaster recovery.

A handful of potential funding provisions for western North Carolina have already been filed, including $300,000 for the Western Regional Education Service Alliance for enhanced professional development programs for K-12 teachers.

The legislature is also considering spending $18.2 million for the purchase of two new rescue helicopters along with $3.3 million in annual funding for support and staffing. One of the helicopters would be based in the western region, but a location is not specified in the bill.

A third bill adds additional money for equipment for state crime labs.

Meanwhile, both chambers are planning votes on a handful of bills filed early in the session.

After a successful vote in the House this week The Senate is expected to vote on House Bill 13, which changes requirements for-class size reductions approved last year.

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During debate in the House last week, bill sponsor Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said there was an urgent need to return local flexibility in budgeting for the change.

McGrady said while the original mandate on class size was well-meaning, it had unintended consequences. The change came too quickly, he said, and did not give school systems time to adjust.

McGrady told his colleagues that Henderson County would have to either hire 48 teachers or shift them from higher grades to meet the mandate. The additional personnel would cost the system an estimated $2.5 million along with another $1 million for mobile units.

The bill, he said, was not intended to roll back class size reductions. “The intention here is to keep the class size as a goal and give the LEAs (local school systems) a chance to transition over time,” McGrady said. “We need lower class sizes in K through 3 — there’s no doubt about that — and I think the General Assembly has made clear its intention.”

McGrady said it was important to move a fix forward and House backers would be willing to work with the Senate if it takes a different approach.

The bill passed the House 114-0.

The Senate is expected to hold a final vote Monday night on an early bill that would reduce the size of the UNC system Board of Governors from 32 to 24.

House Bill 39 would take effect with this year’s elections by the House and Senate, which would elect 12 members of the board instead of 16 under the current law.

Both chambers defeated amendments to require that the board maintain diversity in its membership.

Back to nonpartisan

The Transylvania County Board of Elections would not switch from nonpartisan elections to partisan elections next year under a new bill filed by Rep. Cody Henson, R-Transylvania, and co-sponsored by McGrady and Rep. John Ager, D-Buncombe.

The new legislation would undo a law passed last session sponsored by former Transylvania Rep. Chris Whitmire, who argued that making the elections partisan would increase transparency. The change would have started with a new election in 2018.

The bill moves in the opposite direction of several other election measures in the works for the 2017 session, including a bill that would require partisan municipal elections statewide as well as a plan to convert all local judicial races to partisan as well.

Eminent Domain

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McGrady also made good on a promise to put a constitutional amendment preventing the use of eminent domain for taking private property for non-public purposes.

The bill, which passed the House last Thursday 106-7, would put a constitutional amendment “to prohibit condemnation of private property except for a public use and to provide for the payment of just compensation with right of trial by jury in all condemnation cases” on the November ballot.

A similar bill passed the House last year, but was not taken up by the Senate.

McGrady and others have argued that a constitutional amendment would make it more difficult for a future legislature to rewrite North Carolina laws on eminent domain and compensation in a way that is unfair to property owners whose land is taken.

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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