Budget writers reach agreement on framework

The House and Senate have agreed to the broad outlines of a budget deal, and expect to work out details early next week.

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Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — Top leaders in the House and Senate say they have agreed to the framework that will allow them to complete a budget deal in the coming week – a month behind schedule. According to multiple sources, the $21 billion spending plan will provide slightly more than a 7 percent pay raise for public school teachers. 

Both House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger issued the same message over their Twitter accounts late Saturday afternoon. 

"Budget framework agreed upon between House & Senate conferees. Final details expected next week," both Tillis and Berger said via social media. 

According to several people involved in the negotiations, that "framework" involves laying out the amounts of money available in each budget area for education, Health and Human Services, government operations, etc. In the parlance of budget negotiations, the "long-sheet" – a top-level budget spreadsheet that provides a snapshot of the $21 billion budget – has been agreed to, but many of the details are still up in the air.

"Any vote on a concluded budget would more likely come in the later part of the week," Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, said Saturday night.

The legislature had been scheduled to work out a state budget by July 1, the start of the fiscal year. However, deep differences in several high-dollar areas – health care and education – stalled negotiations. State government kept functioning because lawmakers passed a two-year budget in 2013. 

However, lawmakers pledged to give teachers significant pay raises during several high-profile events this spring. As well, top leaders like Berger, R-Rockingham, and Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, have insisted this budget will help push the state toward reform of its Medicaid system. 

Late-week votes expected

Not only do budget negotiators have to work out final details, but House rules require budget deals to be publicly available two days before members can take a vote. 

Dollar and several others involved in crafting the deal declined to speak about even the broad numbers, saying that budget writers first needed to report back to their party caucuses in the House and Senate. 

Among the biggest differences between the House and Senate have been how big of a raise to give teachers and how much to cut spending on Medicaid, the state-run health insurance program for the poor and disabled. 

"We want to iron out all the details first and have a good conversation with our caucuses and make sure everybody is on board," Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanley, said Saturday night.

However, a source involved in negotiations who was not authorized to speak on the record said that the teacher pay raise would work out to 7.2 percent. Another source, who also declined to speak about specific numbers, said that the pay raise would be between the 6 percent originally proposed by the House and the 8 percent raise offered in early July by the Senate. 

"That's right," said Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, the Senate's lead budget negotiator, when asked if the teacher pay raise would work out to be roughly 7 percent. 

Brown said that the budget would not cut teaching assistant jobs but would change how money for teaching assistants was allocated. Under the 2013 budget, many school districts transferred funding for teaching assistants to pay for full-fledged teachers. Brown said the final budget deal would give school districts less flexibility in how they use teaching assistant funding and move some of the money that had been allocated for teaching assistants into paying for full teachers. 

Final details were still being worked out with regard to what changes would be needed in the Medicaid program, although the final budget will reflect a cut from what lawmakers would have expected to spend in 2014-15. 

Like Dollar, Brown said he expected a final budget to be worked out early in the week, with votes coming Wednesday or later. 

After the House and Senate pass the budget, it would next go to Gov. Pat McCrory for his signature or veto.

McCrory, too, has called for teacher pay raises. However, he said he would veto a budget that required cuts to teaching assistants or changes to who is eligible for Medicaid in order to pay for those raises. With the details available Saturday night, it's unclear whether the current budget outline would cross McCrory's redline and provoke a veto.

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