RALEIGH — Gov. Pat McCrory said Tuesday that fellow Republicans should have approved a final North Carolina budget long ago, but acknowledged lawmakers must sort out a range of opinions before one’s finalized.
Talking to reporters about the drawn-out budget negotiations, the Republican governor said he’s still pushing for his favored initiatives but considers his role as facilitating dialogue between House and Senate leaders. The negotiations are now entering their third month of overtime talks.
A two-year budget was supposed to be on his desk by July 1, but Republican lawmakers became mired in policy changes and funding levels for the current year. McCrory signed into law three temporary spending extensions, the latest to expire Sept. 18.
“I’m confident that we’ll have a budget between now and then,” he said.
McCrory, who would be asked to sign any budget bill into law, has been largely reticent about budget details in recent weeks. He hadn’t taken questions from the media at many Raleigh events. The governor also had said nothing with the passage of the last two budget extensions, with little from his office beyond confirming he had signed them.
McCrory, who in the past has said he didn’t want to negotiate through the media, believes he has helped the budget process along. Two weeks ago, he announced a bottom-line spending number of $21.74 billion after a breakfast meeting with legislative leaders.
“I frankly thought it should have been resolved many months ago but I’ve got to accept the many different ideas within the legislature that are being presented,” McCrory said after a Council of State meeting. “My job is to get them to try to come to a conclusion, and try to influence the process as much as possible.”
McCrory said he was continuing to press for funding for driver’s education for young people and for teacher assistants in the public schools. He said he would prefer assistant funding statewide stay level with last year or go slightly higher, which would be in line with the House budget. The Senate had sought to reduce drastically assistant funding while shifting money to hire more early-grade teachers.
Senate Republicans provided updated details Tuesday morning to House budget-writers about a compromise offer that would preserve funds for assistants, according to top House and Senate negotiators interviewed.
But it would also scale back flexibility districts currently have with spending teacher assistant money. School districts shifted nearly $49 million of the $376 million earmarked by lawmakers to hire assistants during the 2014-15 school year for other education uses, according to the Department of Public Instruction. The percentage of money transferred was higher in 2013-14.
“We want to make sure this money is simply used for teacher assistants, not other items,” said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, who helped develop the offer. Districts sought more flexibility during the last recession to juggle spending cuts. Driver’s education funding, set to end this year, also was still being worked out, Apodaca said.
But the plan also would require eliminating funds to expand other education initiatives, Apodaca said. That worries House members, said Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, a top House negotiator.
“We want to make sure that we can address all of our needs in education (and) that we can do it the appropriate way,” Dollar said.
McCrory said Tuesday local district leaders should have leeway to spend money allocated for teachers and assistants based on school needs.
A final budget law would hasten the close of the nearly eight-month-long session, although lawmakers and McCrory still want more legislation passed before adjournment. McCrory mentioned Tuesday an overhaul of Medicaid and a proposed bond package on the statewide ballot.