Under the Dome

Budget director: No major opposition to McCrory’s budget seen

State Budget Director Lee Roberts, left, addresses the media as N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory listens.
State Budget Director Lee Roberts, left, addresses the media as N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory listens. clowenst@newsobserver.com

The budget that Gov. Pat McCrory proposed earlier this month has not run into major turbulence from special interests so far, his budget director said Monday.

But the state legislature has just begun to dig into the proposal, and will craft its own budget plan in the coming months. Lee Roberts, a newcomer to North Carolina politics and public office who has been on the job since September, said he has been trying to build relationships with key lawmakers in hopes of a final budget that everyone can live with.

Roberts met Monday with reporters and editors at The News & Observer to talk about the budget. Asked if there have been sustained complaints about specific parts of the budget, Roberts said there hasn’t been a particular theme to the criticism.

“We’ve obviously heard plenty of feedback,” Roberts said. “Budgets require making choices, and every time you make a choice there will be people who think you should have made a difference choice.”

On other topics:

Gas tax: The budget director stood by Republican legislative leaders’ position that a pending gas tax bill doesn’t amount to a tax hike, even though it would set the tax at 35 cents a gallon for the next two years, which is higher than it would be under current law.

The governor’s budget assumes the legislature will take some action affecting that revenue. Roberts said it isn’t possible to call it a tax hike because no one can accurately forecast what wholesale gas prices will be in the coming years.

“There are people who get paid millions of dollars a year to do that, and nobody’s been able to do that effectively, so far,” he said. “If you had asked anybody – the best experts in the world – a year ago where gas prices were going to be this year they, without exception, would have been wrong.”

Moving the state forward: Asked what the budget would do to help North Carolina advance, Roberts pointed out that half a billion dollars would be spent on increasing teacher salaries. Asked if that made for smarter students, Roberts was quick to engage.

“The governor has said, and I would say, there is too much focus in the discussion over education funding about how much adults are paid and not enough on what kids learn in the classroom,” Roberts said.

He said that was one reason the governor wants to move away from a “rigid” seniority-based system.

Employee raises: Roberts acknowledged that there are not across-the-board pay raises for state employees, but said the governor’s approach targets specific types of jobs that should see increases. Among them are beginnning teachers, whose pay would increase from $33,000 to $35,000 per year.