Raleigh, N.C. — The state budget is like a buffet. Technically, you can try everything in one sitting, but you’ll regret it. In that spirit, we offer morsels from the budget that Gov. Roy Cooper signed last week.
These are things that, for the most part, we haven’t already covered extensively – things beyond the headlines about pay raises, Medicaid, school construction or other big-ticket, high-profile items enumerated in the 1,400-page pair of documents that will govern state spending over the next two years.
Firefighters and cancer
The budget has $7.5 million in it for a new insurance program for firefighters diagnosed with cancer.
Firefighters have a higher chance of getting cancer than the general public, studies show, likely because of the carcinogens they’re exposed to when fighting fires. But it’s hard to prove that causation, so it’s hard to get workers compensation.
For years, firefighters pressed to change the state’s workers comp rules, but this compromise creates a new program to provide lump-sum payments of $25,000 to $50,000 to firefighters diagnosed with cancer, plus $12,000 for out-of-pocket medical expenses. To pay for it, insurance companies would see a small increase in the taxes they pay on property insurance premiums.
The program will help only those firefighters diagnosed after Jan. 1.
Scott Mullins, president of the Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics Association of North Carolina, said the measure takes North Carolina from having “no cancer coverage for firefighters fighting cancer to the strongest protections in the country.”
This budget invests “historic” amounts of money into flood prevention and resilience, according to the National Audubon Society’s North Carolina chapter, and puts the most toward land conservation in a decade. There’s $265 million for various land, water and parks funds, compared with $30 million in those funds last year, Audubon Society Senior Policy Manager Zach Wallace said.
The budget allocates federal money left out of previous legislative budget proposals.
That omission of $2.8 million concerned State Board of Elections officials since it was already provided by the federal government and just needed to be allocated in the budget. The money allows the board to keep “30 full-time positions that support election security and provide operations support to all county boards of elections,” board spokesman Pat Gannon said.
“Having access to the federal funds allotted to our state means we can continue the efforts in place to safeguard our elections, modernize our systems and ensure safe and secure voting for more than 7 million North Carolina voters,” Gannon said.
The budget continues a Republican priority: Boosting access to vouchers for private school tuition and boosting funding for the program.
The spending plan raises the income cutoff for the Opportunity Scholarships voucher program, which has been 150 percent of the federal free lunch cutoff. It moves now to 175 percent. For a family of two, that’s about $48,300 right now, which would increase to about $56,400.
The budget also increases scholarship amounts, getting rid of a $4,200 annual cap and tying it instead to 90 percent of what the state spends per-pupil at traditional public schools across the state.
There’s also $500,000 in the budget for an unnamed nonprofit to publicize the program, which has millions in reserves because demand hasn’t met the annually escalating amount of money lawmakers put into it.
In the past, Gov. Roy Cooper sought to phase out this program, spending the money instead on public schools. But, by law, the program grows by $10 million each year now, whether it spends all of its money or not. That would increase to $15 million a year under this budget, passing $100 million this year and growing beyond $240 million by fiscal 2032.
In-state tuition for athletic scholarships
Lawmakers added language to the budget allowing booster clubs that pay for athletic scholarships to pay in-state tuition rates instead of out-of-state, even when the athlete is from out of state.
This has been a priority for years for athletics boosters such as the Rams Club at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A legislative analysis of the proposal two years ago estimated the cost to the state at about $16 million.
North Carolina students will have to learn about the Holocaust and genocide under the budget, which directs the State Board of Education to review high school and middle school curriculums and integrate the teaching into English and social studies courses.
The requirement starts with the 2023-24 school year. Lawmakers discussed a separate bill with the same intent earlier this year, with some calling it a needed pushback against Holocaust deniers.
$50 for substitutes
The budget ends the state practice of charging teachers $50 to help pay for a substitute when the teachers take a personal day.
It’s a welcome change for teachers, but a limited one and not without fine print. The plan says they have to give a reason for taking the day, otherwise, they must pay the full cost of hiring the substitute, which varies around the state.
Teachers generally get two personal days a year, in addition to allowed sick days and vacation. They haven’t had to pay for substitutes to take a sick day.
This is one of several policy changes that made it into the budget after lawmakers discussed them earlier this year as separate bills.
Sexual assault funding
Advocates were pleased with the funding boost they get in the budget, which puts $25 million toward sexual assault services, plus another $10 million to continue chipping away at the state’s backlog on rape kit tests.
Both the North Carolina Victim Assistance Network and the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault tweeted thanks to the General Assembly on Tuesday for the funding.
Among other things, the budget funds a sexual assault nurse examiner training program in Cumberland County.
“This is so desperately needed,” said Skye David, a lobbyist for the Victim Assistance Network and the Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Carolina Public Press reviewed the state’s need for sexual assault nurse examiners earlier this year and found it difficult to even determine how many there are in North Carolina and which hospitals have them. That means a woman may wait hours to find someone who can examine her, one of the first steps in a sexual assault investigation, Carolina Public Press reported.
Lawmakers wrote close to 700 projects straight into the budget, promising, say, funding for a new soccer field at a local high school.
Some are sprinkled into other parts of the budget, but the main list starts on page 638 of the budget's money report. Here’s six of them, chosen at random by pointing a finger at various pages:
- $2.5 million for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ “Dueling Dinosaurs Lab”
- $8.2 million for a new State Bureau of Investigation headquarters – a down payment on the project’s full expected cost of $81.6 million
- $275,000 to Lillington for repairs to “downtown facilities.” That’s a popular grant this year – the phrase “downtown facilities” appears 26 times in the budget.
- $350,000 for community bathrooms in Wilkesboro
- $50,000 for the Sampson County History Museum.
- $100,000 for Senior Resources of Guilford to buy a meal delivery van
Continuing on the local projects theme: Eighteen different airports get funding for various upgrades and expansions.
The biggest? $29 million for improvements at the Albert J. Ellis Airport in Onslow County.
The smallest? $400,000 for the Tri-County Airport in Vanceboro.
Eighteen courthouses also get upgrades or replacements.
The largest project runs $59 million to build a new courthouse in Cleveland County. House Speaker Tim Moore represents Cleveland County in the legislature.
Hoke County gets $15 million for its new courthouse. Pender County has the smallest project at $250,000.
School athletic facilities
Along with $12.6 million set aside for the state Department of Public Instruction to dole out in K-12 athletic facilities grants, there are 19 specific projects laid out in the budget.
Cleveland County gets $4.9 million for upgrades at all four of its high schools. Other high schools around the state will get new field turf, tennis courts, soccer fields and the like.
'Rainy day' record
Even after all of this spending, the state expects to have $4.25 billion in its "rainy day" reserve fund at the end of the two-year budget cycle – a record high, according to leadership in both the House and the Senate.
The state had a surplus earlier this year of more than $6 billion, but that’s not the same thing. That’s unreserved cash balance – essentially money left at the bottom line because it’s not budgeted anywhere else.
The rainy day fund is specifically earmarked as savings. It’s labeled on the state’s balance sheet as the “savings reserve” and, as of this month, sits at nearly $2 billion.
The fact that the state is about to build record savings is one of the reasons Cooper and other Democrats, along with advocacy groups, have called for more education spending.