News: CJ Exclusives

Cooper, legislators offer wildly divergent views of same budget

Senate's initial 38-11 vote includes four Democrats who rejected first version

Gov. Roy Cooper (CJ file photo)
Gov. Roy Cooper (CJ file photo)

Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican legislative leaders seemed to be discussing two different documents when they spoke to reporters this week about the General Assembly’s budget conference report.

Cooper lashed out at legislative Republicans on Tuesday, calling their compromise $23 billion spending plan possibly “the most fiscally irresponsible budget I have seen.”

The Democratic governor declined to say whether he would veto the biennial budget package. He said he would announce his decision after the budget reaches his desk — which could be later this week. He would have 10 days to sign or veto it. If he does neither in that time span, the budget would pass without his signature.

Cooper said he hopes for vigorous debate on the chamber floors.

Not that a robust discussion would change his mind. “You can’t vote for it. You just can’t,” he said. He urged Democrats to oppose the budget, along with “fair-minded Republicans.”

At a Monday news conference, Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, suggested the budget met the Democratic governor’s objectives.

“Last time I stood before you [in early May], I told you the General Assembly’s budget and Gov. Cooper’s budget contain many of the same funding priorities — the same is true today,” Berger said. “In fact, I understand that he sent an email to his supporters over the weekend calling for a budget that spends more in education — this one does; more in health care — this one does; funds economic development — this one does; and funds public safety — this one does.”

The education budget would jump by $452.4 million in 2017-18, and by $890.6 million in 2018-19.

The budget provides $142.8 million for teacher salaries in 2017-18 (a 3.3 percent raise) and $420.1 million in 2018-19 (a 9.6 percent hike over the two-year period). Principal salaries would rise an estimated average of 8.6 percent. Assistant principal salaries would increase at least 17 percent in 2017-18, and 19 percent in 2018-19.

There are a series of bonus programs and pilot program bonuses for teachers, reimbursement funds for first-year teacher licensure, and tuition reimbursement for teacher assistants pursuing a college degree that will result in teacher licensure. An $11.3 million increase in textbook and digital material purchases is included next year.

A new Needs-Based School Capital Fund for grants to rural school districts would be created with $105 million from lottery funds over the next two years. Future growth in net lottery revenues would flow to that budget.

Cooper also attacked the GOP tax cut plan, which at $530 million over two years was more than the $350 million proposed by the House and less than the $1 billion Senate proposal.

“The wealthy win, but the average middle class family loses,” he said. He claimed a person earning $1 million a year would receive an income tax break 85 times larger than a working family, without citing how he arrived at those calculations.

Cooper said he urged lawmakers to use conference committee negotiations to improve the budgets the House and Senate passed separately.

“Unfortunately, this budget is worse than either the Senate or the House budget,” Cooper said.

He noted that the compromise budget spends $130 million more than either of the chambers’ budgets while spending less on teacher pay than either budget.

He labeled that “a demonstration of priorities that are out of line.”

Education is shortchanged in the budget compromise, Cooper said.

“The tax plan in this budget will blow a major hole in our budget” a few years down the road, Cooper said, making it more difficult to reach his goals: increasing teacher pay to No. 1 in the Southeast in three years, reaching the national average in five years, and investing in colleges and universities.

He criticized the budget for including no money to teachers for classroom supplies that they often buy out of their own pockets. And he said the budget drains money from public schools to pay for private school vouchers.

According to Cooper, the GOP budget shortchanges economic development.

But Republicans said Monday their budget includes money to add 100 highway construction projects to the Strategic Transportation Initiative over the next 10 years, and $100 million in immediate funding to reduce congestion and increase economic development.

State Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, said “a record investment” is being made to improve commercial airports that could allow direct flights from North Carolina to Asia. The importance of that to future state economic growth “cannot be overstated,” Dollar said. The budget also includes money to dredge and improve the state’s ports to enhance commerce.

Cooper said the budget does nothing to make community college or broadband Internet more affordable, even though they are “two of our best workforce development tools.” His budget would have provided community college tuition to meet any costs not covered by a student’s financial aid.

But the GOP budget proposal includes $1.1 million the first year, and $1.8 million the second to expand the NC Works Career Coaches program in which a community college employee partners with high schools to give career coaching.

The budget includes $2.5 million in the second year to help community colleges with start-up costs for high-cost workforce training programs in high-paying, high-demand fields, and transfers the Apprenticeship NC program from the Department of Commerce to the community college system. That program coordinates with employers to train and employ apprentices to meet labor and market demands.

As for higher education, UNC system President Margaret Spellings issued a statement praising the legislature’s budget.

“The final budget released last evening signals greater investment in and strong support for the university and furthers many of the goals of the UNC Strategic Plan—including accessibility, affordability and efficiency, and student success,” Spellings said.

“This is a good day for the university, and we thank the General Assembly for their leadership and support.”

And though Cooper said the budget does not provide for opioid abuse treatment, House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said the budget offers $10 million for opioid and substance abuse treatment statewide. Another $100,000 is designated for purchase of opioid antagonists to counter an overdose.

The budget cuts include $979,205 in the governor’s administrative budget, which represents about a 17 percent reduction from the office’s $5.8 million base budget.

“I’m sure that’s political spite, or something,” and his office would figure out how to cope with the reduced appropriation, Cooper said. “I’m keeping my eye on the big picture, and what I’m worried about” in a budget that lacks vision.

When GOP legislative leaders were asked by Carolina Journal about the cut to the governor’s budget at Monday’s news conference, Dollar simply said “there are economies” reflected in the budgets of a number of agencies as part of the compromise.

The Senate passed the budget late Tuesday afternoon by an initial 38-11 vote. Despite Cooper’s complaints, four Democrats who voted against the Senate budget — Ben Clark, Cumberland County; Don Davis, Greene County; Joel Ford, Mecklenburg County; and Erica Smith-Ingram, Northampton County — joined all 34 Republicans backing the conference report. The final Senate vote is Wednesday.

House Democrats agreed Tuesday to suspend that body’s 48-hour rule for reviewing budgets before a vote. The House will debate and take an initial vote the compromise package Wednesday and could hold the final vote Thursday.