House budget outlines sharp differences with Senate

House members on Thursday began reviewing pieces of the chamber's proposed 2017-18 budget, but legislative leaders said details about raises for teachers and state employees won't be released until the whole spending plan is rolled out early next week.

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Laura Leslie, Cullen Browder
Matthew Burns
RALEIGH, N.C. — House members on Thursday began reviewing pieces of the chamber's proposed 2017-18 budget, but legislative leaders said details about raises for teachers and state employees won't be released until the whole spending plan is rolled out early next week.

Like the Senate, the House plans to spend $22.9 billion in the coming year, but stark differences quickly appeared in where the money is allocated.

The Senate budget, which was approved two weeks ago, included a 25 percent cut in Department of Public Instruction funding and ticketed several staff positions tied to the State Board of Education for elimination. The House budget doesn't include such drastic cuts, but it does double the number of at-will employees Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson can hire for his office without board approval, from five in the Senate budget to 10.

Johnson and the board are in a legal fight over who controls operations at DPI. The House budget also sets aside $300,000 for Johnson's legal fees.

Similarly, the House budget doesn't include the {{a href=blogpost-4"}}severe cuts to the Department of Environmental Quality{{/a}} that were in the Senate budget. Only vacant positions in the department would be eliminated.

Overall education spending is slightly less in the House budget, $8.8 billion versus $9 billion in the Senate plan, but it restores cuts to some education programs in eastern North Carolina that were part of a last-minute amendment in the Senate.

Other differences with the Senate include eliminating provisions that would cut off food stamps to about 133,000 people statewide, would give salary boosts to four judges, including two with ties to Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, would cut funding to the University of North Carolina School of Law by 30 percent, would put a moratorium on new wind farms in the state, would eliminate state funding for the Governor's School, a summer program for gifted high school students, and would close the Wright School in Durham, which serves students with emotional disorders.

Various appropriations subcommittees approved sections of the budget Thursday after a cursory review and some heated debate. The budget will go before the House Finance Committee next Tuesday – the committee also will take up proposed tax cuts included in the plan – and the full House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday before the measure gets its two required votes in the full House next Thursday and Friday.

Some lawmakers expressed frustration at the speed of the process.

"I'm not ready to do that, even if I had two hours today to do it. There are folks I want to talk to over the weekend," Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, said of voting on the education section of the budget on Thursday.

"You'll have plenty of time over the weekend. This committee's going to take a vote today," Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Craig Horn responded.

"Rep. Michaux, you know perfectly well how this operates," Horn, R-Union, continued. "You're trying to try my patience, and you're doing a really good job of it."

House Democrats expressed disappointment with what they have seen of the proposed budget so far.

"There are a lot of missed opportunities in this budget, missed opportunities to invest in education, workforce development and job creation, especially in our rural communities," House Minority Leader Darren Jackson said.

Jackson, D-Wake, noted that Gov. Roy Cooper was able to make such investments in his $23.5 billion budget proposal without increasing taxes.

"Budgets, in my opinion, are all about priorities," Jackson said. "Tax cuts for millionaires always has to come first in the Republican budget. That's their priority."

For example, he said, the proposed spending plan doesn't address ongoing concerns over lower class sizes in elementary schools that will be phased in over the next two years and the possible impact that would have on non-core instructional courses such as art and music and classroom utilization in schools.

Here are some other notable items in the House budget:

  • Lt. Gov. Dan Forest gets to pick three State Highway Patrol troopers for a new "executive protection detail" that would also provide security for his immediate family and perform "duties as assigned relating to protection."
  • Funding for the Opportunity Scholarships school voucher program would expand, but students who use the vouchers to attend a private or religious school would have to take a standardized test, and state officials would study the program's academic outcomes.
  • Money from the North Carolina Education Lottery, not state funds, would pay for increased spending on school transportation, non-instructional K-12 support personnel and need-based financial aid at UNC campuses.
  • A cap on state funding to light rail projects would be removed.
  • The state Department of Insurance would get 30 more agents to investigate insurance fraud, more than doubling the size of the agency's current investigative force.
  • Funding for the state pre-kindergarten program would double to eliminate the waiting list for slots by using $18 million in federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families block grant money.
  • Money is earmarked to help community colleges affected by Hurricane Matthew make up for the lost enrollment the storm caused.
  • A proposal the House passed earlier to give school districts in 20 counties more flexibility in deciding when to start and end each school year was rolled into the budget.

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