Senate approves $21.1B budget deal

The state Senate has given tentative approval to a $21.1 billion compromise spending plan for the year, despite complaints from teachers and Democrats that legislative leaders' claims about pay raises are inflated.

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Laura Leslie
Matthew Burns
RALEIGH, N.C. — The state Senate gave final approval early Friday to a $21.1 billion compromise spending plan for the year, despite complaints from teachers and Democrats that legislative leaders' claims about pay raises are inflated.

Senators voted 33-10 in favor of the budget without any debate, following a 32-13 preliminary vote Thursday evening. The House was expected to hold its first of two required votes on the budget later Friday.

The legislation includes $282 million for teacher pay raises, a sum Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown called "the largest dollar increase in state history." 

"The priority this session was teacher pay," Brown said. "We felt like it was important to move the state toward the middle of the nation."

Teacher groups have complained in recent days that longevity pay given to teachers with more than 10 years of experience was rolled into the raises, so the pay increases weren't as large as Republican lawmakers said.

"Once again, teachers are asked to give up something they've earned to get something we should be giving them anyway," said Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake.

Sen. Dan Soucek, R-Watauga, countered by calling the raises a "more efficient format" for handling teacher pay. Instead of waiting till the end of the school year for a longevity bonus, he said, teachers would receive the extra money in each paycheck, giving them more money faster.

Republican-led legislatures have increased education spending for four straight years, said Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, adding that he was tired of "the drivel, the whining and the crying" from Democrats about the budget.

Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, was even more blunt, telling Democrats, "You're either misinformed, or you're uninformed," by arguing that the 7 percent average teacher raises don't amount to support for education.

Under the budget, other state employees will receive a $1,000 raise plus an additional five vacation days, which Brown says averages out to a 2.3 percent raise. However, retirees will receive only a 1 percent cost-of-living adjustment, and teaching assistants and other school workers will receive only a $500 raise.

The plan pays for the raises by cutting Department Health and Human Services programs and dipping into the state's savings reserve. 

Democrats said the proposal doesn't improve North Carolina's per-pupil spending and cuts safety-net services to low-income families, at-risk children and Medicaid patients.

"We can do better, we should do better, and we must do better," said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham.

Stein related the story of Portia Gibbs, a woman who died in Belhaven last week while waiting for emergency medical help. The hospital there closed the week before due to financial problems.

"You're hurting hospitals and other providers" with additional cuts to Medicaid reimbursement rates, he said. "You all are inflicting damage, and it's time to stop it."

Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, conceded that Medicaid provider rates were cut and that eligibility for disabled and elderly assistance will be limited for future applicants. But he said lawmakers are frustrated by how much of the state’s funds have to go to Medicaid every year, instead of to improving education and economic development.

"We are not done on Medicaid," Hise said, "but I believe we have held this budget within our means for the first time since I got here."

Democrats argued that Republicans unnecessarily restricted the state's means by cutting taxes last year. Most of the benefit of those tax cuts, in dollar terms, went to wealthy people and corporations, which saw the steepest rate cuts.

"The best social program for folks is a job," Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said to close the 90-minute debate. "More people today are working in North Carolina than ever before. That's a pretty good social program."

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