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Advocacy Groups Lobby State Senators For Funds After House Approves Budget

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The state House has given final approval to a budget bill that doesn't raise taxes while setting aside funds for school enrollment growth and Gov. Mike Easley's initiatives.

There was little debate and just one amendment before a majority of Republicans voted 95-18 in support of the $15.8 billion spending package Tuesday morning.

Passage followed a similar overwhelming vote late Monday. After more than four hours of debate, House members approved the state budget by a vote of 100-20.

More than half the budget is dedicated to education, with money going to reduce class size. It would also increase Medicaid spending and raise salaries for all state employees and teachers.

The spending plan now goes on to the Senate, where lawmakers might try to add funding for human services and the environment.

The two chambers want to approve the spending package for next year by July 1.

After four straight years of shortfalls, budget writers had a $190 million surplus to work with as it formed the plan for the fiscal year, which starts on July 1.

"I commend the House for their action to protect education," Gov. Mike Easley said Tuesday. "We have made great progress over the past three years toward eliminating the achievement gap, and this plan provides the resources to continue that progress. We will continue to work with the legislature through this budget process to provide a final plan that reflects North Carolina values and meets the needs of all our citizens. This budget is still a work in progress and, traditionally, there are oversights that will be corrected as the House and Senate come together on a final package."

Some interest groups are not as pleased with the budget.

Hundreds of people representing 48 service and advocacy agencies -- including the AARP, North Carolina Housing Coalition and the Child Advocacy of Durham -- came together at the Legislature Tuesday to send a message to state senators.

They are calling on lawmakers to adequately fund their critical services with the message, "Say no to cuts, yes to services."

The groups say after a budget shortfall, their programs have been cut or eliminated over the past four years. Now that there is a surplus, the agencies representing 2 million North Carolinians want their budgets and programs restored.

"Even with fewer cuts in the House budget than was originally planned, over $43 million in Health and Human Services programming was cut and nearly $50 million from public schools actual programming for students has been cut," said Sorien Schmidt of Covenant with N.C.'s Children.

In response, House leaders say they did the best they could to restore some of the funding, but acknowledged economic times are still tight.

"Don't think that we're not sensitive to the needs of people in this state. We do have to work within certain parameters," House Co-Speaker Richard Morgan said.

The Senate now gets a shot at the budget and will certainly hear from those who want the human services funding restored.

"We're going to be making arguments that we've got some trade-offs here, and we're going to have to look at other segments of the budget to see if we can increase the dollars towards DHHS," said Sen. Eric Reeves, D-Wake.

The Senate hopes to pass its version of the budget next week. After that, it will go to a conference committee to work out the differences.


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