Politics & Government

NC budget proposals out, with new taxes on Uber rides, school safety improvements and more

Key state budget proposals began rolling out Friday morning, giving the public an initial look at how legislators plan to address education, pollution, public safety and other issues in the next two years.

People who use Uber or Lyft may soon have to pay new taxes on their fares, under one budget provision. Another part of the budget appears aimed at stopping teachers from marching en masse at the legislature on school days, as they did last year and are planning to do again next week. Other parts of the budget are aimed at tackling projects such as cutting down the state’s backlog of untested rape kits, and trying to identify potentially dangerous chemicals in our rivers and lakes.

One major topic that wasn’t in the budget documents Friday was what raises might be in the works for state employees like teachers, state troopers and others. Those details won’t be released until next week.

The budget proposals that are already public are also not yet final. These are just the ideas coming from the N.C. House of Representatives. They could change when the N.C. Senate gets involved in the negotiations, and also might change if Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoes the budget, since legislative Republicans don’t necessarily have enough votes to override a budget veto like they have in Cooper’s previous two years as governor.

Education

The budget would provide an additional $15 million to test a program transferring $145 to each teacher to use to purchase classroom supplies. It differs from a Senate proposal to give $400 to each teacher by transferring $37 million now given to school districts for supplies.

The budget provides $22.3 million more the first year and $37.9 million the second year to hire additional school mental health staff and school resource officers.

It also provides $1 million for a pilot program for a virtual preschool, an idea that drew some controversy earlier this month.

Several state universities are slated to receive some major campus facelifts.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, ECU’s Brody School of Medicine and N.C. Central’s Lee Biology Building would all receive millions of dollars. There are millions more for library renovations at UNC-Greensboro and UNC-Wilmington, as well as a STEM building at N.C. State and other facilities at Western Carolina and UNC-Charlotte.

Environment

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality would get about $600,000 for studying emerging compounds like GenX.

The funding is substantially less than the $6 million requested in Cooper’s budget proposal, which would also include a new mobile lab and testing equipment, as well as a drinking water fund to help homeowners with contaminated wells.

GenX is a largely untested chemical, which may be associated with certain cancers, birth defects and other issues. It and related chemicals have been discovered in several locations throughout North Carolina, most notably in the Cape Fear River which provides the drinking water for Wilmington and much of the rest of southeastern North Carolina. The company that dumped it into the river, Chemours (and formerly DuPont), is facing a class-action lawsuit alleging it knew the health risks and lied to state regulators.

Another budget proposal would expand the list of “occupational” cancers that would qualify the families of deceased firefighters to receive death benefits from the government.

Culture

One budget proposal would include $1.5 million for the proposed “Freedom Park” in Raleigh honoring African-American history and the struggle against slavery in North Carolina. The long-planned park would be across Salisbury Street from the Legislative Building; the budget appropriation requires the group planning the park to raise a $1.7 million match to get the money.

The state is also planning several big construction projects over the next two budget years, including $45 million to expand the N.C. History Museum in downtown Raleigh, $10 million to expand the State Zoo in Asheboro to add an Asia section, and $15 million for a new Civil War museum in Fayetteville.

The state’s film grants are set to be slashed temporarily. North Carolina used to give tax breaks for movies and other projects filmed here, which led to North Carolina landing films like “The Hunger Games” and “Iron Man 3,” and TV shows like “Homeland” and “Eastbound and Down.” Under Republican leadership, the state ended those film tax credits but later replaced them with smaller grants, which this year are receiving $31 million in state funding. The House budget proposal for next year would spend no money on the film grants, but would revert back to $31 million the year after that.

Public safety

Attorney General Josh Stein, whose office runs the State Crime Lab, would receive more than $3 million extra per year to address the state’s backlog of untested rape kits.

The News & Observer reported in January that law enforcement agencies around North Carolina are holding onto more than 15,000 untested rape kits. At the time, Stein said his office needed $6 million from the legislature. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper also requested $6 million, instead of the $3 million proposed Friday.

The budget would also spend $1 million to hire eight new SBI agents who would solely work “to identify potential threats to schools and houses of worship.”

There are also several new jobs for prosecutors, public defenders and judges, and new programs aimed at fighting the opioid crisis, like an addiction treatment program that would help about 120 state prisoners a year. But some agencies were left out. Cooper had asked for a $2 million increase for the Highway Patrol, and on Friday Republican Rep. Michael Speciale asked his fellow Justice and Public Safety Appropriations Committee members why that money wasn’t in their proposed budget.

Republican Rep. Jamie Boles, the committee chairman, blamed a new law that goes into effect later this year, Raise The Age.

North Carolina is currently the only state in the nation that prosecutes all 16-year-olds as adults, and Raise The Age will change that later this year, by allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to be tried as juveniles. Boles said the new law requires hundreds of new jobs and millions of dollars in funding to grow and overhaul the state’s juvenile justice system.

“If you look at the overall (Justice and Public Safety) budget after Raise The Age, there was nothing,” Boles said. “That’s the bottom line.”

The budget proposal Friday called for 103 new school and court counselors, dozens of more support jobs, new community programs and more, which all came out to $30 million next year and $44 million the year after that.



Health care

The budget includes funding for mental health beds, traumatic brain injury programs, Broughton Hospital and an anti-abortion nonprofit.

The new Broughton Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Morganton, would receive $8.7 million to transfer patients from the old hospital, hire new employees and fund beds at the new facility.

Residential programs for patients with traumatic brain injuries are included in $2.3 million that would also go toward The Brain Injury Association of North Carolina, Carolinas Rehabilitation and other service providers for care, education and prevention of traumatic brain injuries.

Anti-abortion nonprofit the Human Coalition would receive $1.2 million to expand a pilot program statewide. Money would be used to “encourage healthy childbirth, support childbirth as an alternative to abortion, promote family formation, assist in establishing successful parenting techniques, and increase the economic self-sufficiency of families.”

Transportation

State lawmakers would tack on a 7 percent privilege tax for “transportation network companies” such as Uber and Lyft if a provision in the budget survives.

The provision said the tax would come from 7 percent of the gross receipts coming from “intrastate services rendered by the company. These taxes are in addition to all other taxes.”

The budget would also increase the amount of money for road repairs, though most of it has to be dedicated to street repaving. Eighty percent of the $14.75 million for the next fiscal year and $29.5 million in the following year would have to go to street repaving.

It also lifts a prohibition on using state money for “independent bicycle and pedestrian improvement projects” that have federal funding. The state match is limited to municipalities of no more than 50,000 residents. Smaller towns of 25,000 or less could receive a 15 percent state match, and those up to 50,000 could receive a 10 percent match.

Staff writers Dan Kane, T. Keung Hui and Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan and Lauren Horsch of the NC Insider contributed to this report.
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