Gov. Roy Cooper’s first budget, unveiled on Wednesday, proposes increased funding for education and other priorities that he says will seed a more prosperous state but which Republicans describe as a reckless return to Democratic overspending.
In addition to 10 percent raises for public school teachers over two years, Cooper’s budget would expand Medicaid coverage by 624,000 people, hire more parole officers, allow law enforcement officers to retire five years earlier, continue large renovation projects identified under the McCrory administration through bonds that would not go to a popular vote, restore tax credit incentives for the film industry, and build a new youth prison and a museum at Fort Fisher.
The budget proposal is not binding on the General Assembly, which will write its own spending plan. It reflects many of Cooper’s campaign promises and his public statements after winning the election in November.
It would, the Democratic governor said, move toward fulfilling his call for a better-educated, healthier and prosperous state – goals shared by Republican lawmakers but that have been funded at lesser levels than what the governor proposes.
“I want North Carolinians to achieve those dreams,” Cooper said. “That’s what this budget is all about.”
The $23.4 billion that Cooper’s two-year budget would spend in the coming fiscal year would be a $1 billion increase over the current budget, amounting to a 5.1 percent increase, followed by a 1.6 percent increase to $24 billion in the second year. The budget, presented to reporters at Durham Technical Community College, would not raise taxes or fees, cut services or dip into special funds.
It will be presented to a legislative committee on Thursday. Although Cooper said lawmakers will find common ground in his budget, the top Republican legislator said it harkens to a time of high taxes and deficits.
“We believe a more prudent approach is investing generously in public education and other priorities while still saving for a rainy day and returning hard-earned tax dollars to our taxpayers,” Senate Leader Phil Berger said. “The governor’s proposal is a step backward from this successful approach that has led to a booming North Carolina economy and helped generate close to 500,000 new jobs.”
Senate Democratic Whip Terry Van Duyn released a statement praising the budget for its focus on those who she said have suffered under Republican budgets over the past six years.
“Governor Cooper’s plan makes sound investments in our schools, our students, and our work force, and creates opportunities to bring quality jobs to North Carolina again,” she said. “We believe in our people; I’m hoping Republicans will give the Governor’s plan serious consideration and join us in investing in our state again.”
The governor said efficiencies in the budget and better technology will help streamline spending. At 161 pages, the document is about half the page count of McCrory’s 2015 budget.
Cooper said the budget focuses attention on the middle-class and away from corporations that have benefited from Republican tax breaks.
“This is the kind of budget you can have if you make people a priority,” Cooper said. “The money’s there.”
▪ Cooper says his plan would aim to place North Carolina in the top 10 most educated states by 2025 by making gains in three areas: increasing enrollment in early-childhood education from 22 to 55 percent (an additional 4,700 slots), raising the high school graduation rate from 85 to 91 percent and increasing the number of adults with higher education degrees from 38 to 55 percent.
▪ Public school teachers would receive 10 percent raises on average over two years, which Cooper called the largest increase in a decade, along with $150 stipends to purchase classroom material.
▪ It would establish a scholarship program that would forgive $10,000 loans for tuition and fees in exchange for a commitment to teach in public schools for four years or three years in low-performing or low-wealth schools.
▪ Another program would benefit community college and recent high school graduates who have exhausted all other sources of financial aid.
▪ A child-care and dependent tax credit would benefit the middle class, he said.
▪ Large manufacturing site projects could receive help from a $20 million development fund. Another $30 million would be used to attract new economic projects, and $20 million would go to expand broadband connections, plus $10 million for downtown revitalization projects.
▪ State employees who are not teachers would receive raises of 2 percent or $800, whichever is more, and a $500 one-time bonus. Retirees would receive a one-time 1.5 percent cost of living adjustment.
▪ State workers would be paid at least the minimum of a pay range for similar jobs.
Mitch Leonard, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, issued a statement saying it was a good start but more could be done with the current budget surplus.
“Politicians on both sides of the aisle don’t seem to realize that the situation is dire for our state employees and retirees who have been left behind by the economic rebound,” Leonard said. “State employees and retirees have lost 10 percent of their buying power since 2010. One out of three state employees make less than $31,000 annually. They are struggling to make ends meet, working two or even three jobs just to feed their families.”
Justice and safety
▪ The plan would hire 56 new probation officers and provide $10 million to help those leaving prison to transition to the outside world through treatment and counseling.
▪ Construction and operating costs of $19 million for a new youth detention center would accommodate 16- and 17-year-olds removed from prosecution in the adult criminal justice system, if the legislature approves that change this year.
The administration of Republican former Gov. Pat McCrory focused on making the state’s environmental regulators more business-friendly. Cooper said that’s fine but that the Department of Environmental Quality was decimated under Republicans.
▪ Cooper would set aside $2.5 million to beef up programs that businesses have complained take too long to issue permits without raising fees. That would expand spending on dam safety, sediment control, water resources, leaking underground storage tank cleanup and fisheries.
▪ His plan would bolster the state’s clean water fund to $19 million over two years, and put more than $10 million into a parks trust fund.
▪ The governor’s budget would add more than $300 million to the savings reserve “rainy day” fund, and $100 million to deal with disaster relief from Hurricane Matthew, wildfires and tropical storms that hit the state last year.
▪ An extra $150 million would go toward the state’s liability on retiree benefits.
▪ Repairs and renovations to university and state buildings would amount to $100 million.
Cooper said all of those spending items would help ensure the state retain its AAA bond rating.