Raleigh, N.C. — Gov. Pat McCrory and House leaders are joining forces to try to break a budget stalemate with the Senate.
House leaders rolled out new legislation Wednesday that would essentially serve as a secondary budget proposal, dealing almost exclusively with education spending and teacher and employee pay raises.
House Senior Budget Chairman Nelson Dollar said the measure "shows we value teachers."
"This bill allows us to highlight and focus on education," Dollar, R-Wake, told the House Appropriations Committee. "We know these are the priorities that all chambers support and the governor supports."
The new bill, Senate Bill 3, includes the House's plan for raises for teachers and state employees. Teachers would receive an average 5 percent pay raise, with beginning teachers getting a slightly bigger bump. State employees would receive a $1,000 raise plus benefits, as well as five bonus vacation days. Retirees would receive a 1.44 percent cost-of-living increase.
Teachers would not be required to give up tenure rights to receive the raises, as the Senate proposed.
Dollar said the bill, if it passes the House and Senate, would put the raises and other changes into law immediately, taking them off the table for budget negotiations.
"I believe this would be very helpful to the process," he said.
The measure would keep the 7,000 teaching assistants that the Senate budget cut. It also sets aside money for in-state tuition for military veterans and for the governor's "Career Pathways" program for teacher development. And it includes an additional $1.7 million for the state's private school voucher program for the upcoming year. Tillis staffers say the extra money is a response to a court ruling on the program's costs, and won't be used to expand it.
The proposal includes one key non-education-related item: $1.7 million for new coal ash regulators.
Dollar said the new bill doesn't rely on projected increases in lottery funding to pay for raises and other recurring spending. Instead, House budget-writers say they "swept" about $140 million in available funds from other sources, including putting less money into reserves and leaving less money in savings.
The plan also depends on more than $360 million in cuts that were included in both the House and Senate budgets. The measure directs the state budget office to put those cuts into effect.
It also directs the budget office to begin the termination process for any state employee whose position was defunded in either the House or Senate budget.
Skeptical Democrats asked whether that would make Senate Bill 3 a substitute budget for the bill that currently has the two chambers deadlocked.
"We are modifying an existing underlying budget that is in effect and will be in effect July 1," Dollar said.
Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, pointed out that the existing budget includes additional cuts in 2014-15 to universities and other spending areas. Dollar confirmed those scheduled cuts would be enacted if Senate Bill 3 ends up being the final budget plan.
McCrory voiced his support for the plan during an afternoon news conference with House Speaker Thom Tillis, State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson and an assortment of educators from across the state.
The governor called the bill "more sustainable and easier to implement" than the previous version.
"I have so much respect for educators, and they understand also some of our balancing needs of meeting Medicaid payments, of meeting transportation payments, of trying to recruit new jobs to North Carolina," McCrory said. "There are a lot of things on our plate, and as we learn and communicate and talk to each other, have conversations with each other, we’re going to have a better future for our students in North Carolina."
Tillis characterized the bill as a consensus measure that fulfills the "education promise" and should garner wide support.
"Anyone who reports there's a big gap between the House and Senate isn't paying attention," he said. "You can have the rhetoric, and you can deal with the rhetoric. But in reality, we're talking about the methodology for determining what the gap is. It is a bridgeable gap."
No Senate leaders were in attendance at McCrory's news conference. Amy Auth, spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, said none was invited.
Senate Republicans and Democrats were united in their criticism of the plan.
“Today’s news solidifies the Senate’s position that conference committee negotiations need to be open to the public so that two people cannot attempt to control the budget process behind closed doors,” Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a statement. “The Senate will begin holding open conference committee meetings to work out our differences with the House.”
Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue blasted McCrory and Tillis for playing "political games" while the state's education system is in crisis.
"Instead of solving this crisis and offering a serious plan to raise teacher pay to the national average, we've seen gimmicky proposals that range from the pathetically weak to the appallingly inhumane to the downright dishonest," Blue said in a statement. "Now, Gov. McCrory and Thom Tillis have offered a new plan without even consulting the Senate leaders required to pass it."
The measure passed House Appropriations easily and was expected to be debated on the House floor Thursday.