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Easley says budget 'off the mark' as House prepares for vote

The N.C. House will vote Wednesday on its proposed $21.3 billion spending plan. Meanwhile, Gov. Mike Easley says the budget retreats on education, particularly on teacher pay.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — After a swirl of committee action that included approving more than 50 amendments, the state House scheduled its  version of the state budget for floor debate Wednesday.

The actions left Gov. Mike Easley unhappy with the results.

The House plan proposes $21.3 billion in spending for the year that begins July 1. The budget needs to be approved twice, with the first vote expected Wednesday and the second on Thursday.

The budget cleared three committees Tuesday. The House Appropriations Committee voted on more than 50 amendments.

The approved changes include shifting $600,000 to promote the High Point furniture market, increasing foreclosure counseling and giving more money to the Smart Start early childhood initiative.

House Democrats say the bill doesn't raise taxes but does increase a handful of fees.

Gov. Mike Easley said Tuesday that he's perplexed by House Democrats who rolled out a budget that he says retreats on education, particularly on teacher pay.

"It's not only unacceptable, it's puzzling to me how they can be so far off the mark," Easley said during a news conference.

House Democrats said they didn't have enough money to provide 7 percent raises for teachers, which Easley wanted. Instead, they wrote in 3 percent raises.

"We think we've done the best with what we have. The fight is not over yet," said Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham. "We're doing the best with what we've got. Nobody's in a frame of mind to raise any taxes or anything like that."

Easley, who isn't running for re-election, proposed increasing cigarette taxes to pay for teacher raises and raising the tax on alcohol and beer to generate more money for mental health programs.

Not providing a 7 percent raise to push the average teacher's salary in North Carolina to the national average breaks a promise to educators statewide, he said.

"Just because you run up on a stump economically, you can't short the teachers. An economic shortfall can't be an education shortfall," he said.

Other state employees would receive a 2.75 percent raise or $1,100 under the House budget proposal or a 1.5 percent raise and a $1,000 bonus under Easley's spending plan. Erica Baldwin, a spokeswoman for the State Employees Association of North Carolina, said government workers aren't thrilled with either proposal.

"The cost of everything is rising and its just not keeping pace with inflation and the market rate," Baldwin said.

Easley also told reporters that he's concerned about how the proposed spending plan doesn't give enough to the More at Four program. More money also is needed for expected enrollment increases at University of North Carolina campuses, he said.

Mental health funding was another point of contention between the two budget plans. Easley wanted to cut $31 million from the current spending plan – to be replaced by other programs – while the House proposal outlines $86 million in savings.

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Adam Owens, Reporter
Jamie Munden, Photographer
Kelly Hinchcliffe, Web Editor
Matthew Burns, Web Editor

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