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Lawmakers Announce NC Budget; Give Few Details On How They'll Pay For It

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Updated 10 a.m.

The details of North Carolina’s new $21 billion budget will be made public.

The document will hopefully answer many of the questions left on the table after House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger officially announced yesterday a deal had been struck.

But the publishing of the document also starts a 48-hour countdown clock. After that period the House can vote on the new budget. And some democratic leaders in the house warn that isn’t enough time to figure out if the new budget makes fiscal senses for the state.

Lawmakers Announce NC Budget; Give Few Details On How They'll Pay For It
Listen here to Tom Bullock's report that aired Tuesday on All Things Considered.

The Tillis-Berger Press Conference started on a positive note – as Senator Berger told the crowd the budget deal was all but in the bag.

“Not only do we have a framework agreement as far as the budget is concerned, we have the details pretty much worked out,” Bergen said.

That means weeks of bickering and political theater by the press conference’s two headliners were over. 

And the three major sticking points – teacher pay increases, the fate of teaching assistants and the future of Medicaid, a health insurance program for the poor and disabled. One by one, Senator Berger announced all had been agreed to.

First up, Berger announced what he promoted as the largest teacher pay increase in North Carolina history.

“This budget adjustment will provide public school educators an average 7% pay raise. Averaging $3,500 per teacher.”

For a total added cost of $282 million..

The House had originally called for a 6 percent increase – paid for by questionable increases in lottery money. The House later dropped that plan.

The Senate had pushed hard for an 11 percent raise for teachers who traded away their tenure for the added cash. The tenure clause was also dropped, but the Senate continued to push for the higher raises financed by the slashing of teaching assistant positions statewide.

Teaching assistant positions were saved. In fact, teaching assistants will even get a $500 raise.

“The budget will also preserve teaching assistant positions, protect classroom funding and continue to give superintendents broad flexibility to tailor classroom spending to their district needs,” Berger said.

So with both sides dropping their funding provisions for teacher raises – how will this be paid for? Both Tillis and Berger were silent on that.

As for Medicaid, the third major sticking point, the Senate had called for more than 16,000 poor and disabled to be dropped from the program.

That won’t happen either, Berger says.

We’ll preserve Medicaid current eligibility, provide most state employees with a $1,000 pay raise and five bonus vacation days…”

Now balanced budgets are a zero sum game, you can’t spend more than you bring in.

That’s true for a household, small business or a state with more than 130,000 full time employees.

So where will the $21 billion-plus called for in this budget come from? Again, both Tillis and Berger were largely lacking in details, though some cuts to the department of Health and Human Services and the amount paid to Medicaid providers was brought up by Sen. Harry Brown.

“There were a range of reductions, some of the rates were changed in terms of the rates of assessment, there’s a one percent cut in provider rates.”

Time and again the lawmakers said the money is there. Even though the major funding plans put forward by both the House and Senate were dropped during negotiations. 

Even though less than a week ago the General Assembly’s own economic analysts announced last year’s income tax cuts created a $680 million decrease in state revenue  –  40 percent more than anyone predicted or planned for.

With so few details available, the whole press conference had a feel of trust, but verify.

But someone has to crunch the numbers. Verification takes time. And Democratic leaders in House say they need more than the 48-hour minimum required.

“we need to see whats going to be in this budget before it comes in the form of a conference report,” said House Minority Leader Larry Hall, who has his own press conference on the budget.

“ I’m going to challenge once again that they put this conference report out for a 72 hour review. We were assured they were going to have these negotiations in public and we made a big spectacle of it but now they’re going back behind closed doors.”

House Minority Whip Susan Fisher pointed out what she says is another problem with the budget deal. Since it was reached by a conference committee, rank-and-file lawmakers have no ability to change it directly. They can only do an up or down vote on the agreement.

“Conference reports cannot be amended. What we see is what we get. And they’ll ram that through both chambers and say look what a great job we did.”

What kind of a job they did may not be known for months, or possibly years.  But later today (Wednesday) we should at least be able to see how they will pay for the legislative priorities – and do our own math to see if their numbers add up.

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