Local Politics

Easley Unlocks $114 Million for Schools

Posted July 20, 2007 12:50 p.m. EDT
Updated July 20, 2007 6:58 p.m. EDT

State budget

— As lawmakers continue haggling over an annual budget, Gov. Mike Easley on Friday ordered that up to $114 million in state funds be released to school districts statewide to help them prepare for the coming school year.

Expressing frustration with the slow progress in budget negotiations between House and Senate lawmakers, Easley called every day without a budget for the 2007-08 fiscal year "wasted time."

The state has been operating on a temporary budget since the new fiscal year began July 1.

"We have put some of our schools in a real bind. As a result of that, I'm taking action," he said. "The rest of the state is on June 30th time. They need those dollars by that date. We're almost a month past that now, and I consider that wasted time."

Lawmakers aren't close to a budget that he would sign, Easley said, noting that any effort to keep a quarter-cent sales tax in the budget needs to be tied to education spending. The tax was adopted several years ago to help the state balance its budget during an economic slowdown.

“If I saw indications that we would have a budget next week that I could sign, I would have waited until the first of the week,” he said. “School is starting soon and we need to get contracts in place so we can hire teachers and make sure our children have the tools they need to succeed.”

Easley wants to direct $59 million from the General Fund to the More at Four pre-kindergarten program, $37 million to reduce class sizes and $17.6 million to help districts work with disadvantaged students.

Traditional-calendar schools statewide start classes in about five weeks, and he said school administrators need the money to hire teachers and finalize plans.

Some budget negotiators, including Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, didn't take kindly to the governor's comments. They maintained a budget deal is near.

"The governor has never been a legislator before, and he doesn't know what the process is," Michaux said. "I don't see what the complaint is. We're going to have a budget out of here."

"I think he was sort of teasing us, picking at us a little bit," said Sen. Linda Garrou, D-Forsyth. "But these are complicated issues."

In addition to using the sales tax for education, Easley said he also wants to see Medicaid funding relief for counties rolled into the budget and a local option for a property transfer tax to help pay for schools, water lines and roads.

Most senators oppose the transfer tax, which would be assessed on every home sale.

"The tax would be put on current residents, and that's fundamentally unfair," said Rick Zechini, director of regulatory affairs for the North Carolina Association of Realtors.

The organization has waged a massive campaign to defeat the tax, and Easley said he thinks most lawmakers are afraid to take on the powerful lobby to complete the budget.

"I think a lot of the legislators over there are scared of the Realtors," he said.