Rep. Chuck McGrady, one of the main House budget writers, confers with Appropriations Committee chair Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, during debate on the budget Thursday. Kirk Ross / Carolina Public Press

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RALEIGH — After working through a long list of amendments Thursday night, the North Carolina House approved its version of a $22.9 billion state budget.

The final tally of 80-31 came just after midnight, fulfilling the constitutional requirement that each vote on the budget be taken on separate day.

Members of the WNC delegation were divided on the plan and broke mainly along party lines.

Democrats Susan Fisher, Brian Turner and John Ager of Buncombe County voted against the two-year spending plan. Republicans Mike Clampitt, Kevin Corbin, Josh Dobson, Chuck McGrady, Jonathan Jordan and Michele Presnell were on the prevailing side, which drew a total of 12 Democratic votes.

At a press conference earlier on Thursday, House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said once passed, a conference committee to work out the differences between the House and Senate would begin work early next week. Moore said he expects the conference work to take about two weeks, despite several major differences in both spending and policy between plans passed by the two chambers.

“We’re getting to be old hands at this, in terms of negotiating,” Moore said. “We have a schedule to try to have this process resolved through conference within a couple of weeks. We want to get a budget done, have it finished and have it to the governor’s desk well before the end of the fiscal year.”

The state’s fiscal year ends on June 30.

The biggest differences between the two chambers are in the size of tax reductions and pay plans for teachers and state employees.

The House tax plan would raise the standard deduction, but leaves rates unchanged. A married couple fling jointly would see their deduction go from $17,500 to 18,500. Single taxpayers would see a $500 increase to $9,250. The mortgage deduction would also rise from $20,000 to $22,000.

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The Senate plan raises the standard deduction, but also continues the trend of personal and corporate rate reductions and as a result would reduce revenues by roughly three times the amount of the House plan.

The House gives state employees a $1000 raise for each of the two years in the budget and five additional days off, which they can hold and use anytime during their careers.

An attempt Thursday evening by Rep. Jordan, R-Watauga, to raise the pay increase to $1,250 for each year was defeated when Moore ruled it out of order.

Teachers would receive an average increase of about 3.3 percent in the House plan, but the amount would vary widely depending on years in the profession with the highest pay raises for teachers with 15 to 20 years of experience. The plan also includes a major boost in pay scales for principals and assistant principals.

House budget writers said that after prior years targeting increases for incoming and mid-career teachers, this year’s increase in intended to create incentives for more veteran educators.

In objecting to the budget Democrats said the plans in both House and Senate don’t go far enough in teacher pay and investments in job creation.

“This House budget shortchanges our state at a time when we don’t have to. It falls far short of what is needed on education and jobs, and I urge the House to do better for our families,” Governor Roy Cooper said in a statement Thursday.

The governor and House Democrats did win a last minute compromise in the brief after-midnight session when the House narrowly approved an amendment to dedicate $20 million to the NC Ready Sites program, which provides utility infrastructure funding for economic development sites in cash-strapped rural counties.

Rep. McGrady, R-Henderson, one the main budget writers for the House, asked members to approve the amendment, noting that it would allow existing funds for rural development to be used in a more strategic way.

“The idea here would be to focus primarily on rural areas and on local governments applying for these monies,” McGrady said during debate as he tried to assure wary Republicans, who objected to the late change. “There’s no earmark here in terms of any specific project, but there was clearly a lot of desire on the other side of the aisle to put money here.”

The amendment passed 57-53 minutes before the final vote on the budget.

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The House included several specific projects for the western region, including $9.5 million to begin work on a new energy production facility at Western Carolina University and a share in a pool of about $6.7 million for five university system projects statewide including Beaver College of Health Sciences at Appalachian State University and the Mountain Area Health Center in Buncombe County.

The budget also increases funding for a new 200-bed facility next to the Swannanoa Correction Center in Buncombe County to house women who have violated their terms of probation.

Total funding in the 2017-2018 fiscal year would $11.4 million and $11.7 million the year after.

Following a year of major wildfires, the state Forest Service would see increases as well, with $2,176,032 set aside for the purchase of an additional airplane equipped to assist in firefighting.

The Forest Service’s Forest Health Branch would receive an additional $10,000 in funds each year for hemlock restoration and a $200,000 appropriation for each year for the Linville River Nursery in Avery County.

The WNC region is also likely to reap part of a large increase in the state’s Film and Entertainment Grant Fund. House budget writers added $15 million in the first year of the budget and $30 million in the second.  

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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