Politics & Government

Things to know in the House budget: Light rail, anti-abortion funding, rural incentives

The House released its proposed budget this week, then set about changing it before voting to approve it on second reading on Thursday. On Friday they’ll make their final vote and are expected to approve it and send to the Senate.

Aside from bigger news about teacher raises and education funding, some other things you should know about in this budget:

Light rail funding

The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project fizzled out earlier this year after Duke University said it did not want the light-rail line to go by its medical campus. But there were other issues that led to the project ending, too, including funding deadlines.

Last year, the legislature left the project with a $57.6 million funding gap that Durham County agreed to make up. Now the House budget has dropped the language that caused one of several complications for the project.

The budget removes a section that calls for “total state funding for a commuter rail or light rail project shall not exceed the lesser of ten percent (10%) of the distribution region allocation or ten percent (10%) of the estimated total project costs used during the prioritization scoring process.”

Anti-abortion group

Under Health and Human Services’ budget, an anti-abortion nonprofit called 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.”

When the budget came through committee, Rep. Gale Adcock and Rep. Julie Von Haefen, both Wake County Democrats, raised questions. Von Haefen wanted to know who would oversee spending for the group, which would provide “crisis pregnancy” services.

Adcock said that what she read about the group online seemed one-sided, and asked why that group was getting funds.

Rep. Josh Dobson, a Marion Republican, said it was just part of the continuum of care and that the budget was using a “comprehensive approach.”

State retirees

State retirees’ cost of living adjustment will come in a one time payment of 1 percent of their annual retirement allowance. And it won’t come until the second year, between July and November 2020.

Ardis Watkins of the State Employees Association of North Carolina said retirees are also concerned about the state health plan spending down reserves, which she said could lead to increased out-of-pocket costs for them.

“Especially with our retirees, health care is the last thing we should be leaving up to chance. The lack of the cost of living adjustment has become a disturbing trend we hope the Senate will break. Retirees are expressing a lot of frustration over the lack of COLA. They are expressing a lot of fear and a lot of concern about their health care,” she said.

The North Carolina Retired Governmental Employees’ Association also released a statement on Friday about the House budget.

The more than 300,000 public sector retirees average a “meager” yearly retirement, with the average pensioner receiving less than $20,000 a year, they said. The association called pensions a promise that legislators need to keep.

“At the end of the day, our legislators are sending us a message: whether they truly respect the work of our public servants, or whether they don’t. A broken promise will send a loud message that our elected officials do not respect the hard work and contribution of these men and women. We hope this isn’t the case and our General Assembly will provide a much needed cost of living adjustment,” they wrote.

Military cemeteries

A newly created military cemetery trust fund, with money shifted from another fund, would pay for maintenance of the state’s military cemeteries as they reach capacity. North Carolina has four state-maintained veterans cemeteries, in Jacksonville, Black Mountain, Goldsboro and Spring Lake. There are four federal veterans cemeteries, with three out of four closed to new burials.

More than 730,000 veterans were living in North Carolina in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Almost 300,000 of them served during the World War II to Vietnam War eras.

Next wave of car taxes and fees nixed

The first round of the budget added fees to electric cars and hybrid cars, and a new tax on ride shares like Uber and Lyft. But those were repealed during a committee meeting. Rep. Julia C. Howard, a Mocksville Republican and senior chair of the Finance Committee, said that they were repealed because they were not debated and discussed in committee, which violated the rules. Later that day, House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, said they were not going to be part of the budget.

Speaking of cars, if your car is 25 years old, you would be able to get a specialty historic license plate in the House budget. That means a car from the 1990s is now historic.

Mass shooters

Republican Rep. Craig Horn of Union County said a proposal to create an eight-person behavioral analysis team within the State Bureau of Investigation, to identify potential mass shooters before they strike, would make North Carolina one of few states with such a team. “We’re going to attempt to get out in front of this,” he said. “To identify those kids — not just kids of course, but mostly kids — who need help.”

Rural recruitment

Republican Rep. Larry Potts of Davidson County said that in the budget for the Department of Health and Human Services there would be new funding for programs that recruit doctors to rural areas, provide job training and health care for veterans, and fund grants for food banks.

Republican Rep. Jeff Elmore of Wilkes County highlighted some efforts in the education budget to help schools recruit and retain teachers. Small rural districts will be able to offer new teachers a signing bonus of up to $4,000, he said, and the state would also return to offering raises for teachers with advanced degrees.

Republican leaders did away with those raises several years ago, but Elmore, who is a teacher himself, said they are good for convincing promising young teachers to “hopefully stay with us past year three ... because some of our most quality teachers are the ones that have the most experience in the classroom.”

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.
Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.