Lawmakers find money to lessen cuts to schools

Posted May 24, 2012 1:37 p.m. EDT
Updated May 24, 2012 6:31 p.m. EDT

State budget

— A North Carolina budget subcommittee has recommended a two-thirds reduction in the amount of money local school districts would be required to return to state government next year.

The House education subcommittee and similar panels that oversee spending for large government categories met Thursday and voted on changes to the second year of the two-year government spending plan. The full budget is expected to be considered next week by the House.

The education committee agreed to reduce the amount local districts return to the state from a projected $503 million to $170 million. The move would make up for about $259 million in federal funding that runs out next month and would roll back another $75 million in cuts scheduled to start in July.

"(School districts) have to be absolutely elated seeing this budget that we have replaced the federal money," said Rep. Bryan Holloway, a House budget writer.

The moves keep school districts essentially at the same spending levels as last year when federal funds are included.

"That's a positive," said Brian Lewis, government relations director for the North Carolina Association of Educators. "(It's) not exactly where the governor was – she eliminated the entire discretionary cut – but we feel that this is a good start."

Gov. Beverly Perdue issued a statement late Wednesday criticizing the House proposal.

“The House's actions on education today barely maintain the status quo, and as local superintendents from around the state have been saying for months, the status quo is not adequate,” Perdue said in a statement.

The governor cited the $170 million in discretionary cuts and the committee's decision not to include $93 million she asked for to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade and to include $25 million less than what she proposed for pre-kindergarten programs.

Perdue has been lobbying for a 0.75-cent increase to the state sales tax rate to generate more money for education, but Republican legislative leaders said they have no plans to consider any new taxes.

Holloway, R-Rockingham, said he's unsure where the extra education money came from.

"Big chairs give. We spend. I don't ask questions," he said, referring to senior budget writers.

One of those "big chairs," Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, said the state is generating more revenue, and lawmakers freed up money "by setting priorities."

There's more money in other places, too. The Department of Health and Human Services, for example, would get $165 million more.

"What we have done as Republicans is taken the funds that are available – no tax increases – and shifted those to the areas of greatest need," Dollar said.

The money trail isn't the only mystery. Some budget items are missing, such as raises or bonuses for teachers and state workers and a proposed cap on the state gas tax.

House leaders said those items would be in a separate finance package expected next week. Once the House completes its budget updates, the Senate will make its adjustments.

"There is a lot of work left in the legislative budget process. The General Assembly needs to do better," Perdue said.