The Pulse

Budget stalemate looms large as new school year approaches

By: - July 26, 2019 1:30 pm

The clock is ticking on the beginning of a new school year.

But state Democrats and Republicans remain locked in a stalemate over the new biennium spending plan, a large chunk of which is earmarked for North Carolina’s public schools.

Medicaid expansion is the main sticking point. There are others, however.

Gov. Roy Cooper, who vetoed the $24 billion budget approved by the House and Senate, wants to expand Medicaid, the federal program that provides health coverage for low-income people.

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union

Republicans are opposed to expansion, citing what they contend is uncertainty around federal money tied to the program. They are lining up votes to try to override the governor’s veto but will need help from across the aisle.

You can hear the concern in State Rep. Craig Horn’s voice when he talks about the budget stalemate.

As a co-chair of the House K-12 Education Committee, the Republican from Union County knows there’s a lot riding on passage of the state budget.

“We’re about a month out [from the start of school] and we don’t have a budget signed into law,” Horn said. “That’s disastrous.”

Classroom space is of particular concern for Horn.

He said the budget impasse means it’ll take longer for school districts to get the money needed to add new classrooms and make repairs and renovations.

“We need the governor [Roy Cooper] to sign the budget,” Horn said. “These folks [GOP and Democrats] need to come together.”

Gov. Roy Cooper

Cooper had this to say after visiting St. Pauls Elementary School in Robeson County this week to drum up support for a bond referendum:

“Students across North Carolina deserve safe, updated classrooms, particularly in areas like Robeson County that are still recovering from natural disasters,” Cooper said. “The legislature’s budget didn’t do enough for our schools and offered no guarantee any school construction would be completed. We must do better.”

The GOP and Democrats are at odds over how to pay for school construction projects with Republicans favoring a pay-as-you-go scheme and Gov. Roy Cooper a compromise option that includes money from a statewide bond referendum and the GOP’s proposal.

The governor originally supported a $3.9 billion bond referendum.

His compromise plan calls for pairing a smaller, $3.5 billion bond with a retooled, “pay-as-you-go” scheme endorsed by the state’s Republican leadership.

“My compromise plan is a balanced, responsible path forward to invest more in school construction than the Republican legislative budget,” Cooper said. “It would build new schools, provide more access to health care, and invest in local communities, instead of shorting schools for more corporate tax cuts.”

The GOP wants to pay for school construction projects using the State Capital and Infrastructure Fund (SCIF).

Republican leaders contend the SCIF, funded with four percent of state revenue, could raise $2 billion for K-12 school projects quicker and cheaper than a bond referendum.

State Sen. Harry Brown (R-Onslow) has said using the SCIF instead of a bond referendum to pay for school construction projects could save North Carolina $1.2 billion over 30 years.

Cooper has argued that using the SCIF to pay for school construction projects would siphon money from other budget needs such as improving school safety, raising teacher salaries, and purchasing textbooks and other instructional supplies.

Teacher pay raises are also on Horn’s radar. He wants them in place before the start of the school year to attract and to retain the best and brightest educators.

Under Cooper’s compromise spending plan, teacher pay would increase by an average of 8.5 percent over the biennium. The GOP’s conference committee plan calls for an average teacher pay raise of 3.8 percent and a one-time bonus.

Cooper initially sought a 9.1 percent average pay raise for teachers.

The budget also calls for expanding Pre-K slots and hiring additional teachers.

It provides $150 for teachers to buy classroom supplies, a proposal that garnered lots of attention early in the budget process.

“None of those things happen without a signed budget,” Horn said.

Meanwhile, Cooper and Senate leader Phil Berger, (R-Rockingham) continue to point accusatory fingers with each blaming the other for the budget stalemate.

“It has been eighteen days since Governor Roy Cooper and Democratic leaders sent a detailed, balanced compromise offer to Republican leaders in the General Assembly,” read an email message from the governor’s office on Friday. “As of today, Republican leaders have not shared any counteroffer to keep the budget process moving forward.”

Berger is doing most of his finger pointing on Twitter.

“With respect, Governor, it’s difficult to take you seriously when you refuse to sign any budget unless Medicaid expansion becomes law,” Berger tweeted earlier this week.

He challenged Cooper to a public budget debate.

“How about we take this off Twitter and do the joint media interview I’ve been requesting?” Berger tweeted Tuesday. “The people deserve to hear both of us have an actual conversation instead of reading tweets written by your staff.”

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.