House and Senate leaders started budget negotiations this week, and one lawmaker reported a 15-hour day of talks Tuesday as the two chambers seek a deal in a matter of weeks.
The fiscal year ends June 30, so a temporary budget – called a “continuing resolution” – will be needed if a budget isn’t final by then. Despite the differences, House Speaker Tim Moore has voiced confidence that the deadline will be met.
“We’re kind of getting old hat in terms of negotiating,” he told reporters last week. “We have a schedule to try to have this process resolved within a couple weeks. We’re going to do that. I would be very surprised if there were something that would throw the schedule off.”
The House passed its spending plan last week, and its budget has plenty of differences to work out with the Senate: What raises will state employees and teachers receive? How big of a tax cut will families and businesses get? Will food stamps and education programs be cut?
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But the two Republican-controlled chambers also have plenty of identical or nearly identical items in their budgets – common ground that will likely be in the final budget without much wrangling. Here’s some of the items of agreement:
How much to spend: Both chambers already agreed to spend $22.9 billion, a 2.5 percent increase over the current fiscal year. It’s less than the $23.4 billion budget with a 5.1 percent spending increase that Gov. Roy Cooper proposed.
The House and Senate haven’t always agreed to a total budget amount in advance. That sort of disagreement was one reason the 2015 legislative session stretched into late September as budget talks stalled. It took until mid-August that year for legislative leaders to agree on how much to spend.
Hurricane Matthew disaster relief: Both the House and Senate budgets include $150 million in disaster relief to help victims of Hurricane Matthew. That’s more than the $100 million in Cooper’s budget.
The money comes in addition to a $200 million disaster relief allocation made during a December special session. And while the December special session law breaks down how the money will be spent, the budget gives Cooper power to spend the extra money.
Private school vouchers: Both budgets would increase the funding for private school vouchers – known as “Opportunity Scholarships” – by $20 million to a total of $44.8 million in the coming fiscal year. State law sets the amount for the program each year, increasing the allocation annually for the next decade.
But the legislature has the power to change the amount, and Democrats filed amendments to cut some of the voucher funding to pay for other programs. They argued that the allocation hasn’t been fully spent, but Republicans shot down the amendments.
Teaching Fellows: Both budgets include $4.55 million from an endowment program to bring back the Teaching Fellows program, which was eliminated in 2015. The new version of the program would provide forgivable college loans of up to $8,250 per year for students who commit to becoming science, math, technology, engineering or special education teachers after graduation. The state would forgive a year of the loan for every two years the recipient teaches in a North Carolina public school – or one year of loan forgiveness for a single year at a school the state categorizes as “low performing.”
Books for kids: Both the House and Senate want to expand Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a literacy program that mails a free book to preschool children each month. The program started in the country singer’s Tennessee hometown and now has partnerships in multiple countries, distributing a million books each month.
The House budget would add $900,000 to the program in the next fiscal year. The Senate budget includes $3.5 million, with the goal of making the program available statewide by the end of 2018.
Free college classes for seniors: While it doesn’t come with a cost to the state, a provision in both budgets would allow adults age 65 and older to audit state university and community college classes – to attend without course credit – with the instructor’s permission, and when space is available.
Rejoining an environmental lawsuit: Both budgets include funding to put North Carolina back in a lawsuit challenging clean water regulations enacted under President Barack Obama.
Attorney General Josh Stein and Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration withdrew from the legal challenge to the “Waters of the United States” rule, which expanded the number of small bodies of water that were subject to the regulations of the Clean Water Act.
The Senate budget provides $1 million for Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, a Republican, to hire attorneys and rejoin the lawsuit. The initial House budget didn’t include the funding, but Republican Rep. Chris Millis of Pender County successfully added an amendment to provide $250,000 for the lawyers. Democrats and a few Republicans say the funding is unnecessary because President Donald Trump has announced plans to repeal the rule.