Sen. Ralph Hise reviews 2017 budget documents ahead of the General Assembly's passage of the measure. Kirk Ross / Carolina Public Press

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RALEIGH – State House and Senate leaders wasted little time Monday in responding to Governor Roy Cooper’s announcement that he would veto the budget over concerns about education funding and the size of a tax cut, which the governor described as “irresponsible.”

In a statement released shortly after the governor’s remarks, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger said they would act quickly to override the governor’s veto. Since Republicans have enough seats in the General Assembly to override the veto without needing to lure any Democratic legislators’ to vote with them, they effort appeared likely to succeed.

“This budget shortchanges our state at a time it doesn’t have to,” Cooper said at his press conference Monday morning at the Executive Mansion. He criticized the budget for leaving out raises for new and veteran teachers and ending retiree health care for state employees.

After two weeks of negotiations, the House and Senate sent the final version of the $23 billion budget to the governor’s desk last week. Completing the budget process allows members to set their sights on other legislative goals during what could be the last week of the 2017 session.

Included in the mix of legislation expected this week is a redistricting plan for judicial and prosecutorial districts and House action on a bill proposed by Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Henderson, setting up district elections for Asheville City Council.

A House committee approved the Asheville bill last week.

Rep. Brian Turner, D-Buncombe, who represents the southern Asheville portion that Edwards says is cut out of representation on the council, said he will support the bill if the lines are drawn by an independent redistricting commission.

Turner told Carolina Public Press last week that he would introduce an amendment to set up a commission when the bill comes up for a vote.

“I’ve worked with Senator Edwards on the amendment for the independent redistricting commission and provided that that’s accepted into the bill, I’ll support it,” Turner said.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said he plans to help move the bill through the House. A longtime advocate of independent redistricting, McGrady said he would support Turner’s amendment to set up a commission to draw the lines.

Budget numbers

The top line for the budget includes a major tax reduction, targeted raises for teachers and school administrators, a $1,000 pay raise for state employees and a 1 percent cost of living adjustment for state retirees.

Along with a hike in the standard deduction and a lower personal income tax rate, the tax plan cuts the corporate tax rate from 3 percent to 2.5 percent.

Deeper into the nearly 1,000-page biennial spending plan there are dozens of policy changes, including the phase out of retiree health plan for employees starting work in 2021 and expansion of state grants for private school education.

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The budget also makes targeted cuts to the Office of Attorney General and Governor that underline the partisan-tinged disagreements between the executive branch and legislature. The legislature also added new restrictions on the governor’s use of outside counsel and a provision requiring the Attorney General to obtain permission from the General Assembly in constitutional lawsuits.

During his Monday press conference, Cooper, who sued the legislature over separation of power issues earlier this year, said he believes some of the provisions in the budget are “unconstitutional.”

The rhetorical battle over the budget began last Thursday at a press conference in which Moore and Berger pressed Cooper to sign the bill, saying it had met the main targets the governor had outlined when he announced his version in February.

“Governor, if the things you’ve said and campaigned on are more than just empty promises, you will sign this budget,” Berger said. Both he and Moore said they would not hesitate to override the governor’s veto.

The state’s fiscal year ends on June 30 and a spending plan must be in place or the legislature will be required to pass a temporary budget.

Although the majorities in both chambers included some Democrats, the western delegation votes last week split along party lines.

Senators Jim Davis, Ralph Hise and Edwards voted for the plan and Sen. Terry Van Duyn against. House Republicans Mike Clampitt, Josh Dobson, Cody Hensen, Jonathan Jordan, McGrady and Michele Presnell voted for the plan, while Democrats John Ager, Susan Fisher and Turner were opposed.

During floor debate, Ager said he couldn’t support the bill. He said when the new version of the budget was released, he was troubled to see the addition of several million in spending distributed around the state in key districts.

“As a small town, small-time hog farmer, I am absolutely appalled at the amount of pork larded into the budget,” he said.

Turner said he was particularly concerned about the steep cuts to the Attorney General’s budget and how it will affect WNC citizens.

“For me the biggest question is the cuts to the Department of Justice,” Turner said in an interview after the vote. “I have a hard time imagining that with a two week advance notice they could reduce their operational budget by 35 to 40 percent and be able to effectively do all the things they do like fraud, scams, elder abuse, opioid issues. I just don’t see how that is functional.”

McGrady, one of the main negotiators for the House side, said he also had concerns about the cuts. The budget was a tough negotiation, he said, but he supported it because overall it moves the state forward.

“While it reflects certain compromises, I’m really happy with the focus on education,” he said. “For the first time we’ve got real pay raises in place for teachers and state employees.”

Although McGrady subscribes to a long held House philosophy against policy provisions, he did admit to using the budget process to cement a deal between the House and Senate on so-called “Raise the Age” legislation, which ends the state’s practice of trying 16 and 17 year olds as adults. North Carolina is the last state in the country to end the policy.

The Hendersonville Republican said the top funding item for the western region is additional funding for the Western School of Medicine. The budget for the joint UNC-Asheville, UNC School of Medicine and Mountain Area Health Education Network project now totals $11 million in 2017-2018 and $10.6 million in 2018-2019.

McGrady said going into the negotiations he was not happy with the Senate plan for deep cuts at the Department of Environmental Quality, including some at the regional office in Asheville. He said the budget moved closer to the House position, which he said was more fair to the agency, paring the Senate plan to cut 45 positions down to 16.

McGrady said the final budget for the state’s conservation funds were also short of where he wanted to see them. One bright spot, he said, is a $200,000 boost to restore the hemlock population.

The recurring funding for both the Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund in the final budget is lower than the Senate, House and governor proposed.

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The CWMTF totals are $18.3 million in the first year and $14.3 million in the second. The PARTF totals are $14.7 million in the first year and $16.2 million in the second.

Michelle Walker, spokesperson for the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources said the funding drop for the CWMTF could have an impact over the next two years, noting that the budget cuts $4.1 million from the fund and earmarks a major portion of its funding for specific projects. “That means some worthy projects will likely go unfunded during the next grant cycle,” she said.

Walker said the department also was counting on an additional firefighting crew for the Parks Service in the budget that failed to make the final version.

“Last year’s devastating wildfires in the N.C. mountains highlighted the serious need for an extra fire crew of five full-time employees to respond to wildfires and perform prescribed burns,” she said.

Other WNC budget items include:

  • $750,000 toward a new energy plant at Western Carolina University;
  • $4 million for improvements at Asheville Regional Airport
  • $506,064 each year for geographically isolated schools, part of which will go to assist Macon County;
  • $500,000 for the Muddy Sneakers program for hands-on science learning for 5th graders at 25 WNC schools;
  • $250,000 for the Haywood Community Learning Center
  • $512,706 for the Anspach Advanced Manufacturing School at the Mayland Community College campus in Burnsville.
  • $200,000 to support the Linville River Nursery in Avery County;
  • $250,000 grant for improvements to Mitchell County High School.

 

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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