Raleigh, N.C. — Members of the House Appropriations Committee began picking through large sections of the chamber's state budget plan Thursday, including a provision that would do away with tolls on all existing ferry routes.
The House's full budget proposal won't roll out until next week. That's the document that will contain provisions such as pay raises for state employees.
Lawmakers passed a two-year budget in 2015. The spending plan rolling out now makes nips and tucks to that budget, but the items available so far don't represent a sweeping revision.
Among the more notable provisions are the following:
- House lawmakers would change how the A-through-F letter grades are assigned to schools. Currently, 80 percent of that score is based on the scores students achieve on standardized tests, with the remaining 20 percent based on growth – how much a student learns during the year. This calculation has been problematic for schools with large underprivileged populations. Even though students at those schools may learn more than a grade-level's worth of material during the year, their test scores can still be lower than on grade level.
The budget provision would change this mix to a 50-50 split. It would also keep the current 15-point grading scale. Any grade over 85 would be an A, 70 to 85 is a B, and so on. The state had been slated to switch to a 10-point grading scale that would have made it harder for any school to achieve an A or B.
- The House budget delays the implementation of NCGAP, a program that would have pushed more students to go to community college before heading to the UNC system. That program, which is to be aimed at students who would be "at-risk" of dropping out of a four-year university, was to have gone into effect this fall. It would be delayed until 2017 under this budget provision.
- The proposed House budget rolls back $26.9 million in spending that would have been set aside to lower the average first grade class size from 17 students per teacher to 16 students per teacher. According to Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke, that money is being put toward hiring more literacy coaches to support the Read to Achieve program, which requires that all third-graders read on grade level before moving on in school.
"It's sort of a trade off in my mind," Blackwell said.
- Creates a $2 million scholarship program for UNC students who want to be teachers and who promise to serve in hard-to-staff subjects or hard-to-staff schools.
- Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam, R-Wake, asked the committee to add a measure that would collect information on school start times. That information, he said, would be used by UNC researchers to determine if when a student starts his school day affects his or her performance. While elementary schools tend to start earlier than high schools, Stam said, research suggests it should be the other way around.
"The educational reality is that the little ones are already up at 6 a.m., and the high school students aren't awake then," Stam said. His amendment was adopted and sent on as part of the chamber's education budget proposal.
- House budget writers would eliminate tolls on all existing ferry routes. That change would cost the state $13 million per year.
"The only place we haven't taken care of our capital issues is in the ferry system," Rep. Paul Tine, U-Dare, said Thursday. He said he is "hopeful" the budget provision would be signed into law but acknowledged that senators have resisted similar moves over the past three years.
- Durham and Orange counties would be able to pursue more state funding for a proposed light rail project under a House budget provision. The provision removes the $500,000 cap on state funding for light rail included in last year's budget.
Natural and Economic Resources
- Money left over from the failed SolarBee project in Jordan Lake will revert to the state's Clean Water Management Trust fund. The state Department of Environmental Quality recently pulled the plug on the experiment, which used solar-powered mixers to stir water in the lake in an effort to reduce algal blooms.
- The House budget sets aside $7.5 million for Forsyth County to support the consolidation of the Children's Museum of Winston-Salem and SciWorks into a single building.
Rep. Chris Millis, R-Pender, asked why money for the project was included in the budget, asking if the museums were state-owned. He also asked about $100,000 set aside for the Western Women's Business Center in Buncombe County to assist with Small Business Administration grants.
"There were certain things the big chairs gave us extra money for and had specific targets for the money," explained Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret.
The so-called "big chairs" are the powerful chairmen of the full appropriations committee. Two of this session's big chairs are Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, and Rep. Church McGrady, R-Buncombe.
- The Department of Insurance would receive three new customer care staffers under the House budget, as well as three new fraud investigators.
- House members want to set aside $425,000 to put the state's building code online.
- The state's Human Relations Commission would be restored to full, regular funding with about $545,407. This item came up during the debate over House Bill 2, which deals with the use of bathrooms by transgender individuals and set statewide nondiscrimination policy. That law sends discrimination complaints to the Human Relations Commission, but many critics of the legislation noted that the commission was under a continuation review and at some risk of losing its funding.
Justice and Public Safety
- Provides $350,000 to replace outdated radios used by the Division of Alcohol Law Enforcement.
- Provides a combined $1.3 million to equip and begin operations of the new Western Crime Lab in Edneyville and provides $640,000 to update equipment at the central crime lab in Raleigh.
- Provides $250,000 to digitize mental health records. That will allow local court clerks to comply with requirements to report those with certain disabilities to a nation databases used to authorize firearms purchases.