Local Politics

Senate places priority on education spending

Posted May 17, 2010 6:44 p.m. EDT
Updated May 18, 2010 11:06 a.m. EDT

— A Senate subcommittee proposed Monday a smaller cut in state spending on public schools and higher education than Gov. Beverly Perdue called for last month, including using excess lottery revenue on college scholarships.

Perdue's budget proposal cut $239.9 million from spending on elementary and secondary schools, the University of North Carolina system and the community college system. The plan drafted by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education calls for cutting education spending by $158.6 million.

Public schools take the brunt of the cuts in both proposals, but the Senate plan would eliminate $135 million in discretionary cuts by local school districts the governor included in her plan. Senators cut from other state agencies instead.

One item missing from the Senate proposal, though, was a pay raise for teachers that Perdue included in her budget.

An extra $73 million in revenue from the North Carolina Education Lottery boosted the Senate's plan. The subcommittee decided to give half of the additional money to the public schools budget and set aside about $26 million for college scholarships.

The remaining $21 million of the extra lottery money would go back into the general lottery fund, under the Senate plan, for distribution to school districts for school construction and other needs.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to meet Tuesday afternoon to begin pulling together the spending plans its various subcommittees have drawn up in recent days.

The speed of the budget process has some groups crying foul over lawmakers' priorities.

For example, Tom Bennett, executive director of the North Carolina Victim Assistance Network, believes funding for prisoner education should be cut to preserve funding to compensate crime victims.

"When we have to stretch every dollar, who's first in line – criminals or crime victims?" Bennett asked.

The Victim Assistance Network would receive $3.5 million under the budget being considered by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for Justice and Public Safety. The group received $4.8 million in the budget approved last summer.

Meanwhile, spending on prisoner education would be cut from $32.9 million to $20 million under the subcommittee's budget.

Jennie Lancaster, chief operating officer of the state Department of Correction, said the two programs shouldn't be considered competing priorities. The department's goal is to rehabilitate and educate inmates to improve public safety when the prisoners are released.

"The investment in job training, skill-related training (and) certainly the basic skills will enhance their ability to be employed in the community, take care of their families and not create any new victims," Lancaster said.

Lawmakers said adding money to the victim compensation fund would be revisited next year when the General Assembly adopts another two-year budget.

April Jenkins, a rape victim who now supports victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, said funding for crime victims should be increased now.

"It's something that needs to be there for them," Jenkins said.