Politics & Government

Roy Cooper wants to give teachers and state workers a big raise. Will lawmakers agree?

If Gov. Roy Cooper has his way, the average teacher will get an 8 percent raise next year, other state employees will get their biggest raise in a decade, and schools will get millions of dollars to upgrade security, buy supplies and hire new resource officers, nurses, counselors, social workers and psychologists.

Those were some of the priorities Cooper, a Democrat, laid out Thursday when he announced his budget proposal.

He also proposed setting aside money for preserving farmland, conserving the environment and building affordable housing. Thatwould cost abut $20 million, in addition to the extra $140 million he wants to send toward Hurricane Matthew recovery efforts. He'd also like to revamp how North Carolina trains its future workforce, with $60 million aimed at apprenticeship programs as well as scholarships to help people facing financial struggles enroll in — and graduate from — community colleges and universities.

"We have to prioritize these investments," Cooper said.

This year's budget discussions will begin less than a week from now, when the legislature returns to Raleigh next Wednesday.

The legislature writes the budget, and the GOP-dominated General Assembly is unlikely to agree with Cooper on many issues. There are enough Republicans in the legislature to overturn a governor's veto, and that's what happened last year.

Cooper's proposals call for more state spending than Republican legislative leaders laid out earlier this week. Cooper's $24.5 billion budget proposal is larger than the $23.9 billion that Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore said they plan on budgeting.

After Berger and Moore announced their plan Monday, Cooper responded that he believes it's more important to spend money on education, health care and workforce training programs, rather than on "massive income tax breaks for corporations and wealthy people."

And on Thursday, Cooper put his money where his mouth is, saying he plans to pay for a portion of his budget proposals by canceling income tax cuts for businesses and the wealthiest North Carolinians.

The legislature cut the state's income tax rate to 5.499 percent in 2013, and that rate is scheduled to drop again next year to 5.25 percent. Cooper says he wants to keep next year's tax cut in place for almost everyone — but he would keep taxing income above $200,000 at the current 5.499 rate. He would also freeze the corporate income tax rate that is due to drop, saying that since Congress passed a major corporate income tax cut earlier this year, North Carolina doesn't need to add to that.

He said those changes would bring in more than $110 million in revenue for the state, which he would use to boost teacher pay.

Teachers are already slated to get around a 6 percent raise next year, on average, but Cooper's plan would bump that up to 8 percent. He would also give raises to veteran teachers with more than 25 years of experience, who don't get anything extra in the legislature's budget plan.

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He then referenced the massive teacher protests that are planned for Wednesday, on the first day of the legislature's budget session.

"North Carolina must treat educators like the professionals they are," Cooper said. "They shouldn't have to take to the streets."

Berger called Cooper's plan Thursday "an unserious attempt to score political points in an election year."

Earlier this week, Berger said Republicans have given teachers raises the past five years. He also said that while the legislature is unlikely to vote for even higher raises for teachers next year like Cooper is now proposing, lawmakers are looking into using a budget surplus to hand out some one-time bonuses.

""They're more likely, if we have any of them, to be of the bonus variety for teachers who have specialized situations," Berger said on Monday.

Berger said the impending teacher protest was "a national thing that has been orchestrated by Democrats," and he and Moore both said the legislature deserves more credit for recent raises teachers have received.

"Teacher pay has increased," Moore said. "Do I want to see it higher? Absolutely. And that's the direction we're moving."

North Carolina's average teacher now makes just over $50,000 a year, which is still $10,000 below the national average but is rising faster than the national average. On Thursday, Cooper said that never would've happened without pressure from his administration.

"There is no question that our teacher pay plan that we put forward last year caused (the legislature) to raise teacher pay more than they would have," Cooper said.

State employee raises and higher ed spending

Cooper would give every other state employee a raise of either $1,250 or 2 percent, whichever is larger. And state law enforcement officers, like those in the Highway Patrol, would get another $1,000 on top of that. So would people who work in prisons and state psychiatric hospitals. Cooper's budget also includes a 1 percent cost-of-living increase for state retiree benefits.

The State Employees Association of North Carolina was thrilled, saying this would be the largest raise for state workers in the last decade.

"The governor's decisive action is a significant and long overdue step toward lifting many public servants out of poverty wages, especially those who serve our most vulnerable citizens or protect us from harm," SEANC Executive Director Robert Broome said.

And in addition to the various workforce training programs at community colleges that Cooper's budget proposes, it would also increase the UNC System's budget by more than 6 percent — or about $184 million. Much of that would be to implement raises, but other programs include more financial aid spending, and funds targeted specifically at small colleges and historically black colleges.

“We appreciate that Governor Cooper’s recommended budget includes funding for the University’s top priorities — student success, retaining top talent, and data modernization," UNC President Margaret Spellings said. "We look forward to working with the General Assembly in the coming weeks to build upon the System’s strongest budget in a decade, which was approved by the legislature last year."

Budget breakdown

Cooper's proposals are far from guaranteed to pass muster in the legislature, but he says they're a reflection of his values and priorities.

Here are some of the requests he has proposed for extra spending.

$390 million for teacher and state employee raises

$184 million to the state's "rainy day fund" for future emergencies

$140 million for additional Hurricane Matthew recovery funds

$100 million for safety improvements at schools and prisons

$75 million to address the state's changing, smaller classroom size requirements

$50 million to hire new school resource officers, nurses, counselors, social workers and psychologists

$50 million for community college job training programs and scholarships, and $10 million for employer training programs, plus a cut in the unemployment insurance tax that businesses have to pay

$11 million to open a new psychiatric hospital in Western North Carolina with 85 beds

$10 million to combat the opioid crisis, with spending on programs and new public health staff

$14.5 million to investigate pollution caused by GenX and other "emerging contaminants"

$150 for every public school teacher in the state to buy classroom supplies

$3 million to help low-income, minority and English-as-a-second-language students gain access to gifted classes in school

$0 for film incentives next year, but $32.5 million for the program in the 2019-20 budget

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran