Gov. Roy Cooper

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RALEIGH — On the heels of the new governor’s first spending proposal, legislators start getting into specifics for their own budget plans this week, after a slow start to the session marked by intermittent court battles and political fights with the incoming administration.

For the past two weeks, budget committees have been holding briefings on overall numbers and outlines of the process for new members of the General Assembly.

This week, the committees will hear from department representatives and dig into projects in each section of the plan.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s two-year budget proposal, released last week, includes the governor’s push for Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, and a two-year set of pay raises for teachers averaging 5 percent as part of a five-year plan to reach the national average.

At a budget released last week Cooper said the state needs to catch up in education spending and said the goal is move North Carolina one of the top 10 educated states by 2025.

The two-year cost of the teacher raises is estimated at $813 million. The plan also spends $20 million to raise principal pay, now the lowest in the nation, by 6.5 percent.

The governor also proposed a pay increase for state employees of 2 percent or $800 (whichever is greater) and a one-time $500 bonus.

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The plan also includes a $100 million pool of funds for disaster recover for Hurricane  Matthew and WNC wildfires. It creates a $20 fund for major economic development infrastructure projects and $15 million for the state film and entertainment grant program. The plan also converts the program from grants to tax credits starting next year.

Republican leaders said they agree with the governor on the direction, but have their own ideas on how to get there.

In a speech at a clean energy conference on Friday, Henderson County Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady, one of the man budget chairs in the House, said he was in general agreement with the governor’s priorities, particularly in education.

But Republican leaders have raised concerns about the size of the spending plan and Cooper’s commitment to the savings reserve, the former Rainy Day fund.

In a statement last week, Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, cautioned against a potential “spending spree” by the governor and called the proposal a step backward.

One main difference is in the proposed Medicaid expansion. Both Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, have said the governor does not have the authority to expand Medicaid under a law passed in 2013 that gave the legislature sole authority on any expansion.

Both Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, and Rep. Josh Dobson, R-McDowell, who serve as co-chairs of health and human services committees have called the governor’s moves on Medicaid out of bounds.

Also controversial is Cooper’s plan to phase out the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program, which uses state money toward private school tuition for low income students.

Since the budget falls under the responsibilities of the legislature, the governor’s proposal is more often used as a guide to the administration’s priorities and spending requests and not a starting point.

Specific items for the state’s western region include:

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  • $838,974 to fund 7.8 positions and operate and maintain the Mountain Area Health Education Center Western School of Medicine
  • $4,735,000 to construct a dormitory to house up to 75 students at the Western Justice Academy in Edneyville
  • $87,755 in recurring funding and a one-time boost of $77,100 to establish an information technology disaster recovery site at the Western Data Center near Forest City
  • $15 million in debt authorization toward a major boiler replacement at Western Carolina University
  • $6,770,000 in debt authorization for the Phillips Hall renovation at UNC-Asheville
  • A share in $2 million in funding for Asheville to establish one of seven new urban search and rescue teams
  • $2 million to demolish the Western Youth Detention Facility in Morganton, which is being replaced with a National Guard Regional Readiness 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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