Money for lawsuits, special needs savings among ongoing stories linked to budget

Posted September 15, 2015
Updated September 18, 2015

Legislative Building

— Two groups of retirees illustrate how fortunes rise and fall when the final version of the state budget is released.

Those who retired from state and local government services had hoped they would receive at least a 1 percent cost-of-living increase in their pension payments. House leaders had included a 2 percent raise. But the final bill contained none, disappointing both retirees and State Treasurer Janet Cowell, who had argued for a boost.

Those retirees with a lot of medical expenses are much happier. Budget writers have restored an tax exemption for medical expenses that was eliminated last year. The loss of that exemption drove up tax bills for many, especially retirees in assisted living communities, and sparked a political firestorm earlier this year.

In fact, many of the year's highest-profile stories are affected by the state budget lawmakers expect to send Gov. Pat McCrory by the end of the week. Here are some of those:

Constitutional showdowns: When the list of people suing the state over laws passed by lawmakers includes the governor, you know some legal bills are piling up. Since Republicans took control of the General Assembly, laws on voting rights, legislative districts, control of executive branch agencies and abortion have faced legal challenges.

The state budget sets aside $4 million for "current and pending" litigation costs. That money will go to pay for lawyers hired directly be the legislature rather than the Attorney General's Office, which typically defends lawsuits.

Pirates: Those who discovered the Queen Anne's Revenge, Blackbeard's flagship, have taken the state to court as well. But the budget sets aside $1.5 million to further the state's recovery efforts over the next two years.

ABLE Act: The ABLE Act was one of the feel-good stories of the year. The act creates tax-privileged savings accounts that allow parents to save for the future of their developmentally disabled children. It also allows those with disabilities to earn income without threatening benefits such as health care provided through the Medicaid program.

That program had been slated to start next summer. However, the state provides only $250,000 in start-up funds for the program, about half of what was needed.

"If that money stays that way, we have some concerns about meeting that 2016 goal," said Julia Adams-Scheurich, director of government relations for The Arc of North Carolina, an advocacy group for developmentally disabled.

That start-up funding was to be used by the State Treasurer's Office to do the legal work and other administration necessary to put the program in place. Without that money, what was supposed to be a summer 2016 start date will likely be pushed back to later in the year or into 2017.

"We have families who have already been waiting on the passage of the ABLE Act on the national level for 10 years," Adams-Scheurich said.

Unless there is a technical fix passed later in the year, those families will end up waiting a bit longer.

Vouchers: Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court ruled that North Carolina's school voucher program, which gives taxpayer dollars so some students can attend private school, is legal. Since then, advocates have been making calls in order to swell the ranks of those on waiting lists for the program.

The budget boosts funding for the program by $6.8 million over the next year and by $14 million starting July 1, 2016. That will bring the total scholarship funding available in 2016-17 to $24.8 million. While this pleases advocates, and is a small slice of overall public education funding, the provision enrages public school advocates.

"That money could be invested in more textbooks and other instructional resources for public school students," North Carolina Association of Educators President Rodney Ellis said in a statement Monday.

Textbooks: Many parents and teachers complain that textbooks needed to teach students complicated subjects such as math and science simply aren't available in schools due to textbook funding cuts.

This year's budget increases funding for both textbooks and digital resources, such as online learning programs used by students, to $52.4 million in 2015-16 and $62 million in 2016-17.

Elizabeth City State: In 2014, at least one draft of the budget could have led to closing Elizabeth City Statue University. Since then, the university's leaders have tackled a financial and educational issues and a new chancellor was appointed.

The state budget provides $3 million over each of the next two years to support and help financially stabilize the university.

Ready for college: Lawmakers have argued over the last few years how to make sure that students come to college ready to learn. They have even contemplated measures that would require universities to reimburse local school systems to the cost of remedial classes.

However, the state budget does away with one program designed to give a leg up to students who may be most at risk of running into trouble.

The $1.19 million program gave a head start on their studies to students who entered the university system but barely cleared the criteria needed for entry. The program has been a target of conservative critics, who have said that, if students aren't ready for school, they should not be admitted.

Use of force and body cameras: Shootings in which police officers have killed unarmed suspects have sparked cries for reform and better training across the country. The budget tackles the use of force issue in two ways.

It sets aside $5 million over each of the next two years for a body-worn camera grant program to help local police departments acquire recording and storage equipment.

There is also money set aside for a new use-of-force simulator to be located at the Samarcand training facility. As well, the budget provides money and direction to the State Highway Patrol to develop a use-of-force training curriculum for state police agencies.

Prisons: A cellphone illegally smuggled into a prison led to a violent kidnapping in 2014. The state budget sets aside $3.3 million over the next two years for technology designed to detect defeat smuggled cellphones.

Underage drinking: Underage drinking can lead to tragedy, and the state has been pushing a program designed to curb binge drinking and alcohol use by those under 21.

The state budget puts $3.1 million per year into the newly created Talk it Out program and its marketing. To pay for the program, the budget raises the "bailment surcharge" on alcohol shipped from the state warehouse, which could slightly increase the cost of liquor at local ABC stores.


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