State Politics

NC Senate OKs budget despite concerns about private school vouchers, pet projects

Senate Democrats had few complaints about the final state budget bill’s marquee provisions – teacher raises averaging 4.7 percent, state employee raises and an income tax cut – ahead of a 33-16 vote along party lines Tuesday evening.

Instead, much of the minority party’s criticism centered on smaller items within the 235-page spending plan for the fiscal year beginning in July. Several Democrats said they oppose the $34.8 million set aside for private school vouchers.

Another blasted new restrictions on light rail funding that could cripple a project connecting Durham and Chapel Hill. And Democrats also pointed out pet projects inserted by powerful Republicans, including sidewalks in Charlotte suburbs and a grant for fly fishing.

The $22.34 billion budget is a compromise between House and Senate Republican leaders. Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue said the GOP teacher pay plan is a positive step. It would boost the average salary for the coming school year to $50,186 including supplemental pay by counties.

Blue, a Raleigh Democrat, also praised the 1.5 percent raise for state workers, one-time bonus equal to 0.5 percent of their annual salary and targeted merit raises.

“Those are pay increases that are sorely needed as we recovered from this 2008 debacle and this Great Recession,” Blue said, adding that legislators must continue to raise teacher pay. “Until we adopt a plan that brings our teachers to the national average in salaries, we’re going to continue hemorrhaging teachers to whoever the competition might be.”

Democrats said state retirees shouldn’t have been left out of raises. The budget would give them a one-time cost-of-living adjustment of 1.6 percent – something Senate budget writer Harry Brown says is a prudent move because the retirement system must be funded in the future.

“I thought that was a good compromise to try to keep the retirement plan as healthy as possible and still take care of retirees,” he said. “When people retire, there’s no guarantees for COLAs.”

Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, focused his criticism on the budget’s approach to light rail. The budget repeals a $500,000 cap on state funding for light-rail projects, but it prevents commuter rail and light rail projects from receiving more than 10 percent of their total funding from the state. The Durham-Chapel Hill project wouldn’t automatically get funding – it would have to wait two years and go through the Department of Transportation’s prioritization process again.

“I hate to see us go back in here now and establish standards that are going to make it extraordinarily challenging for that project to move forward,” he said. “You can’t go about changing the rules just because you don’t like the outcome.”

Sen. Angela Bryant, a Rocky Mount Democrat, said budget writers should have used some of the private school voucher money for pre-kindergarten and child care programs. While the budget adds hundreds of kids to those programs, thousands will remain on waiting lists, she said.

“To me, that indicates some serious concern into where our priorities would be,” she said.

Brown defended the voucher program, known as opportunity scholarships. “If you’ve got a child that’s a special needs child or is in a failing school, that opportunity scholarship certainly means a lot to you,” he said. “Their child has no hope where it’s at today.”

Democrats criticized what they viewed as “pork” projects inserted in the budget in Republicans’ districts, including $1 million for sidewalks in two Charlotte suburbs and $50,000 for a nonprofit that offers fly fishing to disabled veterans. “We need a system and a process to help determine what these priorities are … rather than just based on the power of some budget committee member or committee chair,” Blue said.

The debate didn’t feature any criticism of a controversial plan to lower tuition at Elizabeth City State University, UNC Pembroke and Western Carolina University to $500 per semester.

The final budget features the Senate’s plan to raise the standard deduction – the amount on which taxpayers owe no taxes if they don’t itemize returns – from $15,500 to $17,500 over two years for a married couple. “It will provide significant relief to middle class families,” said Sen. Bill Rabon, a Southport Republican.

Senate leader Phil Berger called on senators to support the budget and “not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

“Anytime you have a budget, you can find something to complain about,” he said. “On balance, this is the best budget I’ve seen in the 16 years I’ve been here.”

After a final Senate vote Wednesday, the House is expected to approve the budget later this week and send it to Gov. Pat McCrory.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter