House Committees OK Pieces Of Budget, But Picture Still Incomplete

May 26, 2017

Thursday was a busy day for members of the North Carolina House. All eight appropriations subcommittees voted to approve their respective parts of the chamber's proposed state budget.

Normally, at a time like this, we can tell you everything included in that budget. Not so today. Morning Edition Host Marshall Terry asks WFAE's Tom Bullock to explain all this.

MT: I take it Thursday's committee meeting marathon was a bit strange.

TB: That's fair to say. And it was strange because the full budget, with all its important details, won't be released until Tuesday. So these subcommittees voted to approve incomplete sections of that budget.

Take education. What they voted to approve included no mention of pay increases for teachers or principals. That was also left out of the budget highlights press release from House Speaker Tim Moore. And taxes or tax cuts weren’t debated at all yesterday.

Now, to be clear, we fully expect the house budget to include both teacher pay increases and some form of tax cuts. I bring these up simply to illustrate the point.

MT: So, overall, what do we know about the house's proposed state budget.

TB: It's clear they have a top line number in mind. Likely identical to the $22.9 billion spending plan approved by the State Senate earlier this month. And I say that because of rules each committee imposed on their members. No amendments could be introduced that increased spending in one area unless they cut the same amount of spending in another area of the same budget bucket. And we know the Republican leaders of the House are dead-set to approve their budget by the end of next week. And that timeline could lead to frustration on the part of some House Democrats. Like (the) exchange in the education subcommittee between Democrat Mickey Michaux from Durham and Republican Craig Horn of Union County.

MT: Tom, let's go through what provisions we do know will be in the House's proposed State budget.

TB: Sure, and let's remember this is a partial picture at best and it could change. Let's start with education. With no details yet on a teacher pay increase the headlines here are these:

The House plan would fully fund anticipated student enrollment.

But it does not include any extra funding as of yet for what's being called the K-3 class size fix. The General Assembly is calling for smaller class sizes in these grades but school districts say they're not being given any extra money for the new teachers and classrooms this calls for and say they will have to cut positions in areas like art, music and PE when this takes effect. Lawmakers disagree on this point and say the schools already have the money, they're just not spending it right. The House plan does, however, call for a study on the limits of classroom space.

Funding for the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program would continue to accelerate. These are vouchers qualifying parents can use to send their kids to private or parochial schools. The House does include a provision where these students would have to now take a standardized test to measure if they're doing better in these schools.

The House also calls for a lot more lottery money to fund things like busing, support staff and some UNC scholarships.

And it would cut the budget for school district central offices by roughly 5 percent next year and 10 percent in 2019. This is money used to pay superintendents and other administrative staff.

On the pre-K front, the House would eliminate the wait list on the program by spending $18 million in federal grants to expand the number of slots available. This is in line with what Governor Cooper called for in his budget. The Senate on the other hand would only cut the wait list in half.

MT: What were some of the other interesting budget provisions we know about?

TB: Lets' start with opioid addiction. Here the House budget does surprisingly little. It funds a single, $250,000 pilot project. At a press conference yesterday, House Minority leader Darren Jackson said: "That is great for the Wilmington area and I'm sure this program will be a model for the future. But what about the rest of the state?"

The House budget also calls for $2 million in grants to help police forces buy dashboard and body cameras.

In transportation, the House would remove a cap on spending for light rail projects. And they would eliminate the use of prison inmates to pick up litter along highways. Supporters of this measure say private contractors can do it cheaper.

MT: So what happens next week?

TB: Tuesday we should see the full budget released. Then it goes to the full appropriations committee for a vote. The full House will then vote on the measure likely on Thursday and Friday.