RALEIGH — Although she voted along party lines in opposition to a proposed state budget on Tuesday, Sen. Jane Smith of Lumberton says the budget includes too many benefits for Robeson County for her to vote against it again when the final Senate vote is taken this afternoon.
“I spent all day Tuesday reviewing the budget,” Smith said. “Of course there are things I don’t like about it, but there are a lot of good things in it for Robeson County.”
The Senate gave preliminary approval to the compromise measure with the House on a 33-16 party-line vote in favor of the GOP, whose members praised the $22.3 billion plan that spends less than 3 percent more than the current fiscal year. The bill adjusts the second year of the current two-year budget that begins Friday.
The proposed budget deal includes raises for teachers and state employees and offers an income tax break to those who don’t itemize on their returns.
One more Senate vote today and two House votes — the first coming Thursday — are needed before it goes to the desk of Gov. Pat McCrory, who hasn’t spoken publicly about the agreement. But the measure does meet his goal of raising average teacher pay — from state and other sources — above $50,000 this fall, according to legislators.
The measure also sets aside $474 million in the state’s rainy day reserve fund, bring its total to nearly $1.6 billion, a record.
Senate Appropriations Committee co-chairman Harry Brown, R-Onslow, said the budget adjustments follow the GOP mantra of “spending responsibly, taxing sparingly and saving wisely.” The measure also includes several initiatives to keep the cost of attending University of North Carolina system schools in check, including the offer of $500 in-state tuition at three campuses beginning in fall 2018 and fixed tuition for incoming in-state freshmen this fall.
The agreement provides the “pathway for the opportunity of a college education for everyone in North Carolina at a reasonable cost,” Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said during floor debate. “On balance, this is the best budget that I’ve seen in the 16 years that I’ve been here.”
Democrats said there were some good items in the budget, like teacher pay raises of 4.7 percent on average.
“I’m happy our teachers got raises, but I’m I’m not happy that our veteran teachers, those with more than 25 years were left out,” Smith said. “Raises stop at 25 years. If a teacher has worked 30 years they get nothing.”
Democrats criticized nearly $35 million inside the plan to expand taxpayer funded-scholarships to K-12 students in low-income families. The measure projects $10 million increases annually for the next decade.
“There’s some good things to be found in this budget,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, “but there are others … which I detest, which I find deeply troubling.”
A small revenue surplus, money unspent by government agencies and more than $318 million in Medicaid savings gave Republicans the ability to offer the pay raises, including an across-the-board 1.5 percent raise for rank-and-file state workers, along with money for bonuses. Standard deductions also will rise by $1,000 to $2,000 through next year, meaning more money earned by income tax filers will be subject to no taxes. Republicans say those cuts will be weighted toward low- and middle-income filers.
Smith said she would like to have seen retired state employees get more than just a 1.6 percent bonus. This is just a one-time payment, she said, that does not go toward an individual’s retirement.
The extra funds also allowed Republicans to have more funds than usual to distribute to nonprofits and local initiatives. These have traditionally been called “special projects.” Critics have called it pork.
“You can drag it home and be happy about it but it does not go to addressing the priorities of the children of this state,” said Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake.
Smith said she was also glad to see that the final budget included $165,000 for completion of the horse barns and stalls being constructed at the Southeastern North Carolina Agricultural Events Center located just outside of Lumberton.
“We can finally get this project completed,” she said. “I can’t vote against any budget that provides the funding to finally complete construction of those stalls.
Other items in the final budget:
— Create a pilot program to reward the best third-grade reading teachers with bonuses of up to $6,800.
— Repeal a $500,000 cap approved in 2015 on state funding for light-rail projects, although other restrictions in place, including a 10 percent limit on funding a project from state funds, could be problematic for some regional governments.
— Scale back a Senate proposal that would have repealed and replaced nutrient management rules for several bodies of water used for drinking water. Now the rules for Jordan and Falls lakes in the Triangle area again will be delayed.
On Tuesday, all of Robeson County’s representatives in the House, all Democrats said they will probably vote in favor of the proposed budget.
“This bill is not dramatically different from what we sent up to the conference committee for consideration,” said Rep. Ken Goodman. “I think it will pass with a strong number of Democrats supporting it.”