Advocates wary of scarce budget details

As lawmakers work out the rest of the $21 billion budget deal struck this weekend, key details are scarce, and advocates for groups at the center of the stalemate are skeptical.

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Laura Leslie
RALEIGH, N.C. — As lawmakers work out details of the $21 billion budget deal struck this weekend, advocates for groups at the center of the stalemate are voicing skepticism about the information revealed so far.
House and Senate leaders announced via Twitter Saturday night that they had agreed on a "framework" that would include teacher pay raises averaging just over 7 percent – one of three key sticking points in the month-long standoff between the chambers. That's expected to cost around $265 million. 

But details remain elusive on how the House and the Senate bridged their other major points of contention: cuts to teaching assistants and Medicaid eligibility. 

The deal announced Saturday includes $135 million in as-yet-unspecified cuts to Medicaid and $64 million less in funding for teaching assistants. Senate leaders say school districts are using that sum to pay teachers rather than teaching assistants, so that amount would be transferred into the teacher pay raise pot.

Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, did say that some lottery funding was used to help make sure teaching assistants were not displaced. 

Negotiators say the Medicaid cuts will include some changes in eligibility, leaving advocates concerned. 

"The Arc of North Carolina continues to be concerned over any proposed Medicaid eligibility reductions that will negatively affect people with disabilities in our state," said Julia Adams, assistant director of government relations for the group, which represents people with disabilities.

"Eligibility reductions for the aged, blind and disabled or those who are medically needy is not the right direction for North Carolina," Adams said. "We should never balance our state budget on the backs of the most vulnerable citizens. We must always put people and their health care needs above politics." 

The state's largest teachers' group is also skeptical about the announced pay raise. 

"We’re not popping the celebration balloons quite yet," said Mark Jewell, vice president of the North Carolina Association of Educators.  

"Where’s the revenue coming from? Are we going to be looking at cuts to other programs? Are teacher assistants going to be held harmless? Are cuts going to be placed on the locals to have to make cuts with personnel?" Jewell asked. "We have a $700 million hole in the budget, so the math is not adding up."

Jewell said NCAE is urging its members across the state to contact their legislators and ask more questions.

"Is it going to be an across-the-board salary increase? Are teachers at the top of the pay scale going to be receiving the same amount as those at the lower end? Is longevity going to be held harmless? Is master's pay?" he asked.

Jewell also pointed to Friday's news that the state, already projected to collect less individual income tax revenue after the 2013 tax cuts, will collect $205 million less because wage growth has been slower than projected.

"Strong schools are funded through a strong tax base," he said. "They gave tax breaks for millionaires and corporations. This is why we have this huge hole now. It's part of the "Hunger Games" that we keep talking about. You have all these programs that are underfunded across the state, all squabbling over the same small amount of money right now. So, it's a huge concern for us." 

Legislative staffers in the Fiscal Research Division said Friday that the latest drop in revenue should not affect the current year's budget. But a longtime former budget staffer said it will have to be reflected in the bottom line in order for the budget to be balanced. 

The status of raises for state employees remains unclear. The House had proposed a $1,000 raise for workers, while the Senate proposed around $800. State retirees' cost-of-living adjustment is up in the air at this point as well. 

Brown said that all state workers would get some sort of raise, but he would not part with the details. 

Also unclear is how Gov. Pat McCrory will react to the deal. The governor threatened as recently as Friday to veto any budget that pays for teacher raises at the expense of Medicaid eligibility or teaching assistants. 

McCrory spokesman Josh Ellis said Monday that it would be "premature" to comment on the budget deal.

"I would expect he would be in a position to sign it," Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said Monday night.