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NC Gov. Cooper calls for education funding as legislature opens session

Gov. Roy Cooper presents his proposed budget at a news conference on April 24, 2024.
Colin Campbell
Gov. Roy Cooper presents his proposed budget at a news conference on April 24, 2024.

Gov. Roy Cooper released his proposal budget Wednesday as state lawmakers returned to Raleigh to begin the short session.

With Republicans holding a veto-proof majority in the legislature, Cooper's spending plan will likely have minimal influence on the final GOP budget adopted in the coming months.

But the governor's proposal Wednesday highlights a likely partisan flashpoint in the budget talks: Republican plans to add potentially $300 million to the private school voucher program, known as "Opportunity Scholarships." The legislature eliminated income requirements for the program — allowing anyone to benefit — but the money ran out before families at higher income levels could receive vouchers.

Cooper said lawmakers should fund public schools rather than expand private school vouchers.

"Republican legislative leaders are promising to give away hundreds of millions more just to make sure that the wealthier North Carolinians can pick up their government checks for children that they already have in private schools," he said at a news conference.

The governor’s budget includes a 5% raise for most state employees — up from a 3% already scheduled to take effect in July — and an average raise of 8.5% for teachers, which Cooper said would increase starting pay to about $47,500, the highest among southeastern states.

He also wants to add 700 more teacher assistants in elementary schools and put a $2.5 billion school construction bond referendum on the ballot this fall. As childcare centers face the loss of federal pandemic funding, Cooper is calling for more than $600 million for funding to extend the money and provide grants for childcare workers to pay their own kids' tuition.

Cooper said this budget cycle presents legislators with a "billion-dollar choice" thanks to a projected revenue surplus.

"They can choose desperately needed investments to educate our children and our workforce, along with tax cuts for the middle class and small businesses," he said. "Or they can choose tax giveaways for corporations and the wealthy and keep robbing taxpayer money from public schools to fund private school vouchers."

Speaking to reporters after a brief no-vote session, Senate leader Phil Berger said he hasn't had time to review Cooper's budget yet but "if you boil his proposal down, it's always spend more, tax more."

He said the legislature is unlikely to approve Cooper's plan for a school construction bond. "We've indicated that our priority is to get the state out of the borrowing money business," he said, "and so I don't think there'd be a lot of support for a bond whether it's for school construction or any other measure."

The only legislative action taking place Wednesday came in committee meetings where lawmakers considered confirmations for several of Cooper's recent appointees, including Transportation Secretary Joey Hopkins.

But Berger provided some hints about what could be on the legislature's agenda in the weeks to come:

  • He said the Senate could vote as early as next week on a bill to de-annex a developer's property from the Guilford County town of Summerfield.
  • Berger wants to see the Senate vote on a House proposal to require sheriffs to cooperate with federal immigration detainer requests.
  • He also indicated a willingness to consider a proposed constitutional amendment that would say that only citizens can vote. "I think you can make a legalistic argument that something like that is already prohibited," he said. "However, I don't see any harm in including that as a constitutional amendment."
Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.