Rob Christensen

The good, the bad, and the ugly of the budget – Christensen

NC state budget deal includes raises for state employees, teachers

A compromise North Carolina state budget would give teachers an average pay raise of 3.3 percent in the coming year, and would raise most other state employees’ pay by a flat $1,000. Retired state employees would receive a 1 percent cost-of-living
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A compromise North Carolina state budget would give teachers an average pay raise of 3.3 percent in the coming year, and would raise most other state employees’ pay by a flat $1,000. Retired state employees would receive a 1 percent cost-of-living

A budget is much more than a door stop – it is a guide to the inner political psyche of those responsible for drafting it.

This week, the Republican-led legislature passed the two-year state budget and sent it to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk. It won’t matter much whether he signs it or not, since the Republicans have enough votes to override any veto.

Here is a look at some of the good, the bad and the ugly in the budget.

THE GOOD

1. Public school teachers will receive a pay hike of 9.6 percent over the next two years, which is a significant jump. North Carolina ranks 35th in the nation in teacher pay.

2. Teenagers aged 16 and 17 will no longer be automatically tried as adults. North Carolina was last state to pass this reform.

3. The legislature is moving to eliminate the waiting list for the statewide pre-kindergarten program. Last year there were 27,019 children in NC Pre-K classes and 4,688 were on the waiting list. The budget has enough money to erase about 75 percent of the waiting list for the 4-year-olds.

4. An effort is underway to help the state’s five historically black universities, including offering tuition reductions and special scholarships for various campuses.

5. Funding was continued for the North Carolina Governor’s School, a pioneering summer program for gifted high school students that was on the Senate chopping block. Started in 1963, the program has enriched the lives of some 30,000 Tar Heel boys and girls, particularly those from rural areas. But its continued existence has been touch and go under the Republicans, in part, because it has been viewed skeptically by the religious right.

6. The legislature will cut $500,000 from the UNC law school budget, instead of the $4 million proposed by the Senate. This doesn’t really come under the category of “good,” but rather not nearly as bad as it could have been. The Senate proposed cutting the law school’s state appropriation by 30 percent in what was widely seen as an attempt to send a message about its unhappiness with Gene Nichol, a law school faculty member who has accused the legislature of favoring the wealthy over the poor in his newspaper columns. The law school’s budget woes are a major reason why it has been sliding in national standings.

THE BAD

1. The legislature in 2013 passed the largest tax cut in North Carolina history, part of what then-House Speaker Thom Tillis called “the conservative revolution.” An estimated three-fourths of the cuts went to the top 20 percent of income earners, in part because they are the people who pay the most taxes.

This budget will cut individual income tax rates to 5.25 percent from 5.499 percent and the corporate rate to 2.5 percent from 3 percent in the second year, costing the state $900 million annually when fully implemented. This means that the legislature will eventually have cut $3.5 billion annually in all its tax cuts – money that could have gone for services. North Carolina, for example, ranks 41st nationally in per pupil spending for public education.

Here is a question for lawmakers: Which is most likely hindering industrial recruitment and economic development in small-town North Carolina – high taxes or poor schools?

2. The legislature voted to eliminate state funding for legal aid to the poor. The state spends $1.7 million to help finance three legal aid organizations. The average person who uses legal aid earns $12,000 per year and uses it for cases such as domestic abuse. The legislature’s action comes at a time when the Trump administration has proposed killing the Federal Legal Services Corp., which provides federal funding.

3. Legislators whacked funding of Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein’s Department of Justice by $10 million, in a move that Stein said will force him to lay off one-third of his lawyers in the department. The move came as Stein has declined to represent the Republican position in court actions involving election laws, efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and President Donald Trump’s travel ban

THE UGLY

Hypocrisy alert. The Democrats attacked the Republicans for including in their budget a lot of small projects – a practice widely known as pork barrel. There was a time when Democrats controlled the legislature when they were the pork-barrel kings. The Republicans ran campaigns against the Democrats, claiming they were going to come to Raleigh to clean up the process. Now, not so much. It is hard to decide which party is now more hypocritical.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper blasts the legislature's compromise budget in a news conference Tuesday, June, 20, 2017 in Raleigh.

Rob Christensen: robc@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532

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