Democrats fail to alter N.C. Senate budget

Democrats fail to get money for teacher assistants but may have another chance.

Staff WriterMay 26, 2011 

Senate Democrats failed during a committee meeting Wednesday to make major changes to the $19.4 billion, GOP-authored budget, but may get another chance next week when the full Senate debates the plan.

Democrats could not get teacher assistant jobs, some Medicaid services or the state Smart Start central office restored. In what sounded like a close vote, a proposal to undo a plan to move the State Bureau of Investigation, the state crime lab and the justice training programs from the state Attorney General's Office to a new Department of Public Safety failed.

Sen. Ed Jones, an Enfield Democrat, said a host of law enforcement agencies opposed the change and want to keep the SBI where it is.

Sen. Pete Brunstetter, the Winston-Salem Republican running the meeting, would not allow for a precise vote count; he said Jones would have the chance to try again next week.

The budget marks significant funding shifts in education, early childhood programs and health care.

It cuts funding for most teacher assistants and would hire 1,100 teachers to get a start on a Senate plan to reduce class sizes in first through third grades to one teacher for every 15 students. In the first year, the plan is to pay for a 1-to-17 ratio.

The budget dissolves the Smart Start central office and moves administration into the state Department of Health and Human Services. And beginning in mid-2012, the budget would eliminate Medicaid coverage for a host of medical services for adults, including most dental care, unless the patient is pregnant.

Senate Republicans put their emphasis on smaller class sizes and having children read by the time they leave third grade. They say reading is the key to reducing high school dropout rates and the need for remedial college courses.

Democrats question the education plan because it cuts thousands of teacher assistants next year, while class sizes wouldn't shrink to 15 until years later. The practical effect is that teachers will end up with 20 or more children in lower-grade classes with no assistants to help them, said Sen. Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat.

Sen. Linda Garrou, a Winston-Salem Democrat, questioned how schools would find space for more classrooms.

"Reducing class size is a worthy goal, but do the math," she said. She proposed unsuccessfully to restore some of the teacher assistants with the $61.7 million budgeted to hire more teachers.

Republican Senators said public education is not solving critical problems.

"We have to reform what we're doing, when what we're doing isn't working," said Sen. Harry Brown, a Jacksonville Republican.

The Senate budget has an extra $115 million for school construction, and Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican, said schools will have space available because there will be fewer slots for More at Four, the state's pre-kindergarten program.

One change Democrats did get passed is to have an official tally of how many state and school employees lose their jobs as a result of the budget.

lynn.bonner@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4821

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