State Politics

NC legislature extends longest budget impasse in 13 years

Teacher Assistants Rally At Legislature

Melinda Zarate of Lexington, communications director of the N.C. Association of Teacher Assistants speaks at a rally at the NC statehouse as teacher assistants gathered Thursday to protest the legislature's failure to agree in a budget yet, leavin
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Melinda Zarate of Lexington, communications director of the N.C. Association of Teacher Assistants speaks at a rally at the NC statehouse as teacher assistants gathered Thursday to protest the legislature's failure to agree in a budget yet, leavin

After trading blame for their impasse, the House and Senate voted Wednesday to give themselves another budget extension, setting up the longest delay since 2002.

The temporary spending authorization, known as a continuing resolution, is the second stopgap measure enacted to keep state government running since the new fiscal year began on July 1. House and Senate leaders say they still don’t agree on how much the state should spend in the coming year – or how to spend it.

The delay spells confusion for public schools across the state, which will open their doors before they learn how much state funding they’ll have for the new school year.

“We’re flying by the seat of our pants right now,” said Steve Curtis, finance officer for Pamlico County Schools. “We’d love to have a budget.”

The legislation approved Wednesday, effective through Aug. 31, authorizes state agencies to continue most spending at levels from fiscal year 2015, which ended on June 30. It does not resolve any of the disagreements between the House and Senate budgets.

Much of the uncertainty involves teacher assistants. Thousands of them would lose their jobs under the Senate budget, which shifts funding to hire more elementary teachers and reduce class sizes. Some school districts have delayed hiring teacher assistants, while others such as Pamlico are hoping the House plan prevails so they won’t have to find other funding to pay them.

“Most of our bus drivers are also teacher assistants,” Curtis said. “We’re sticking with what we’ve got and hoping for the best. If the state funding does get cut, that may mean we use local funds.”

After previous teacher assistant cuts in the legislature, Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools now hire them for one year at a time. Many teacher assistants there won’t know whether they have a job this year until the budget is final, district spokesman Jeff Nash said.

“The continued state budget uncertainty makes it extremely difficult to know how many we’re going to have and how we’re going to place them,” Nash said.

Other people in this building don’t seem to care what those schools are going to face.

Sen. Tom Apodaca

Some returning teacher assistants could already be taking other jobs, Nash added. “You might have a smaller pool of great candidates” once the budget is resolved, he said.

Legislators blame each other

Back in Raleigh, legislators were quick to point fingers. “It’s time to get down and get this done; enough’s enough,” said Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca, who was among eight Republicans to vote against the extension.

Apodaca blamed his fellow Republicans in the House for education funding issues. “Other people in this building don’t seem to care what those schools are going to face,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader and budget writer Harry Brown was more diplomatic. He said the state’s $445 million budget surplus has made an agreement harder than in previous years when money was tight.

“I think the Senate’s been more disciplined on spending, and the House spent so much more,” Brown said.

The Senate now wants a spending increase of 2.7 percent, which tracks population growth and inflation and also mirrors Gov. Pat McCrory’s original budget proposal. The House budget called for a 5 percent increase, which leaders said was necessary to catch up after the recession. That would mean spending about $500 million more than the Senate’s preference.

McCrory’s budget director, Lee Roberts, said in a recent interview with WRAL-TV that the governor would only support a spending increase of 2.7 percent or less. McCrory’s office did not respond to multiple inquiries about that statement this week.

The House’s senior budget writer, Rep. Nelson Dollar of Cary, said his side hasn’t agreed to the 2.7 percent figure. “We certainly still have a little ways to go,” he said. “Clearly the House is at a higher spending number.”

House leaders have also said policy items like Medicaid and major tax changes in the Senate’s original budget bill slowed the negotiations. Senate leaders agreed to remove those items last week and have approved them in separate bills.

While our leaders have missed deadlines and been jet-setting to San Diego and Dana Point, Calif., our teaching assistants have been sweating out the summer wondering if they will have jobs in the fall.

Melinda Zarate, N.C. Association of Teacher Assistants

Protest set for Thursday

As the negotiations continue – and budget writers said they’re meeting daily – a group of teachers and teacher assistants plans to protest at the legislature on Thursday morning.

“While our leaders have missed deadlines and been jet-setting to San Diego and Dana Point, Calif. (for conferences and donor meetings), our teaching assistants have been sweating out the summer wondering if they will have jobs in the fall,” said Melinda Zarate of the N.C. Association of Teacher Assistants.

House Democratic Leader Larry Hall sought to add $24 million for teacher assistants to the temporary budget Wednesday. But Speaker Tim Moore immediately ruled Hall’s amendment out of order and did not allow debate or a vote.

Hall criticized the move in a news release Wednesday.

“Our children get one chance and, by refusing to fund TAs, Republican leadership is denying them their chance to get the sound, basic education required under our constitution,” Hall said.

Dollar said the House is holding firm on teacher assistants, but he said school districts just want to ensure funding for them appears in the final budget.

“What we’ve been hearing from school leaders is they are concerned about the final product as opposed to the jockeying around on the continuing resolution,” Dollar said.

Budget writers in both chambers were cautiously optimistic Wednesday about meeting the new Aug. 31 deadline.

“I’m confident that we can have something,” Brown said. “But I’m not the only one who makes that decision. It takes a lot of people coming together.”

Legislature’s budget delays

This year: 62 days late (if passed on new Aug. 31 deadline)

Last year: 38 days late

Last delay this long: 2002, when a budget deal happened 92 days late

Longest recorded delay: 1998, when the budget was 122 days late

Percentage of budgets enacted by June 30 since 1995: 29

Percentage of budget enacted by June 30, 1961-1994: 57

Sticking points

Spending levels: The House budget would increase overall spending by about 5 percent from the previous fiscal year. The Senate budget has an increase of about 2 percent, but leaders in that chamber now say they’ll support a 2.7 percent increase.

Teacher assistants: The House wants to fund the same number of elementary school teacher assistants the state had last school year. But the Senate wants to cut more than 5,000 teacher assistant positions while adding about 2,000 teachers to reduce class sizes.

State employee raises: While the House wants a 2 percent raise for all state employees, the Senate budget would instead fund targeted raises for hard-to-fill and hard-to-retain positions in state government.

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