The budget bill totals 267 pages, and its accompanying Money Report which lists all the various appropriations for programs, projects and salaries runs an additional several hundred pages. Therefore, any effort to summarize what is in the budget will inevitably only hit the highlights. This article will provide budget highlights, with some emphasis on projects affecting Henderson County and western North Carolina and my work in constructing this budget.
Here are the highlights:
Investing in Teachers and Schools
- 6.5% average teacher pay raise
- $3,150 average raise for principals
- $700 million increase in public education funding
- Fully funds enrollment growth and maintains the per-pupil allocation for textbooks
State Employees Compensation
- $31,200 sets a baseline salary for all permanent state employees — the so-called “Living Wage.”
- All state employees will receive a 2% raise and state retirees will receive a one-time 1.0% cost of living supplement
- $60 million earmarked for disaster relief, focused primarily on Hurricane Matthew victims, bringing the total to $336 million
- Funding to avoid damages of future floods, hurricanes or fires, by mapping landslide areas in the mountains and the relocation of buildings in flood-prone areas
- Funding additional equipment for emergency management equipment
Supporting Law Enforcement and Correction Officers
- $15 million for security and safety improvements in NC prisons
- 4% pay raise for all corrections officers
- State troopers can reach the top pay of $64,202 in six years with significant pay raises starting for cadets in training to become state troopers
- $35 million for various safety initiatives that school systems can access
- $241 million in lottery funding to build or upgrade school facilities
More Money in Your Pockets and More Money Saved
- 99% of North Carolina families will pay less in state taxes or pay no state income taxes at all
- The new state income tax rate will be lowered to 5.25%. Very recently, the rate was 7.75%
- $2 billion in the so-called “Rainy Day” fund which, if needed following natural disasters or tough economic times, will fund needed governmental programs
There are other items that are noteworthy. The budget provides a $10 million investment in broadband access for rural communities. The budget also provides money for “Raise-the-Age,” moving 16- and 17-year olds from the adult criminal justice system to the juvenile justice system. $155 million will be spent on various capital projects and $65 million for repairs and renovations, including funding to pull down $58 million in federal funds for Water Resource projects.
Again, these are only the highlights. I can provide additional information on the Salaries and Benefits provisions and a more exhaustive outline of spending in the various sections of the budget, e.g. Education, Human and Human Services, Agriculture, Natural and Economic Resources, Justice and Public Safety, and Transportation. If you want more detail, drop me an email at Chuck.McGrady@ncleg.net.
Henderson County and Western North Carolina Investments
As a full Appropriations chair, I work on the budget in its entirety but I am also the senior appropriator in western North Carolina and represent a Henderson County district. For that reason, programs and projects affecting Henderson County and western North Carolina are my responsibility. Here are some of the items that relate to Henderson County and western North Carolina.
- Western Medical School. The budget includes $4.8 million to continue funding for the medical school housed with MAHEC in Asheville. After starting their education at UNC-Chapel Hill, students complete their education in western North Carolina, hopefully producing doctors who will remain in western North Carolina.
- Landslide Mapping. Part of the disaster relief package includes $3.6 million for completing landslide mapping in western North Carolina.
- Hemlock Restoration. $225,000 will continue the operation of the hemlock restoration program.
- Leader In Me. A $200,000 grant-in-aid will go to Henderson County Public Schools for a pilot program, a grant proposed by Senator Chuck Edwards (R-Hendersonville).
- Stop the Bleed. A $126,950 grant-in-aid to Transylvania County Schools for the purchase of bleeding control kits in 250 classrooms, a grant sought by Rep. Cody Henson (R-Rosman).
- Funding of Literacy Councils. Because of a change in a federal funding area, the Blue Ridge Literacy Council was going to lose its federal funding passing through the state. The budget will restore most of that funding and give Blue Ridge Literacy Council a glidepath to raise monies to replace the loss of federal funding.
- Muddy Sneakers. $400,000 goes to this western North Carolina program that helps get kids out of the classroom and out to our parks and forests to learn science in the field. The program is expanding across the state.
- Pisgah Legal Services. $100,000 to continue funding for a legal aid program for veterans.
- Justice Academy. Funding for a second firearms instructor to be housed at the Western Justice Academy in Edneyville.
- Cybersecurity Regional Training Center. Montreat College will get $2 million for the creation of a center and a curriculum addressing the need for cybersecurity.
- Western North Carolina University. $16.5 million is appropriated to start on the replacement of the power plant at WCU.
- UNC-Asheville. $2,770,000 goes to the school to complete work on the bond-funded repairs to Owen and Carmichael renovations. Senator Edwards and I worked together on this funding.
As a full Appropriations Chair, my responsibility is for the Agriculture, Natural and Economic Resources portion of the budget. I also get involved in a range of issues brought to me by organizations, like United Way or Conserving Carolina. Here are some of the funding issues on which I’ve worked.
- Funding for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, Parks & Recreation Trust Fund, and the Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund was maintained or expanded. These trust funds are used to acquire easement and buffers to protect water quality, fund state park and local park improvements, including funding for DuPont State Recreational Forest, or acquisition of easements protecting farmland.
- 2-1-1. This grants provides money to support the 2-1-1 system which provides information to callers on how they might access government services and local resources. The system worked well in response to the Hurricane Matthew disaster.
- Children’s Digital Library. Librarians sought additional monies for the statewide Children’s Digital Library, and I obtained the $200,000 in the budget for this program.
- Child Care Subsidy. This program provides money to help families obtain quality child care. More funding was obtained to provide market rate increases for child care providers and more money was allocated to address the waitlist for the child care subsidy.
- Department of Environmental Quality. A cut scheduled for the DEQ was reversed. Moreover, for the first time in recent years, more funding will be going to support its regulatory work, particularly related to the GenX water quality issue affecting water in the Wilmington area.
- Natural Resource Center Dinosaur Project. Notably, the most enjoyable budget project was getting $1.8 million to expand the Natural History Museum’s dinosaur exhibit, “Dueling Dinosaurs.” The museum has one of only two fossils discovered where two dinosaurs were fighting when they both apparently died of their respective injuries, probably while fighting in a shallow lake. Their bones and injuries were preserved in the lake sediment.
My Disagreements with the Budget
In a budget of this size, it is not likely that one can support everything in the budget bill. That is certainly true for me. Here are some of the things that concern me.
- GenX. While we’ve turned the corner on addressing the GenX pollution issue. The provision giving the Governor more authority to address the issue is simply political theater. He doesn’t need more authority, and the provision is a transparent ploy to pin the Governor with the GenX issue. My hope was that we’d put more money towards regulating the issue, by giving more funding to DEQ. I also think it was unwise to fund a spectrometer that wouldn’t do everything that DEQ would like done with its spectrometer. We’re buying a Chevrolet when we can buy a Cadillac (or a Tesla).
- Acquiring Permanent Dredging Capacity. Providing $15 million to fund the purchase of a dredge that apparently will be used to keep Oregon Inlet open is a waste of money. Over time, sand moves along the cost, and this money is being put to dredge sand that will just keep shifting.
- Jordan Lake and Falls Lake Rules. We’ve got to begin to clean up both Jordan Lake and Falls Lake rules, and extending the time to start that work is a mistake.
If I were king and not just one on the people putting together the budget, I’d like to reverse the cuts made to Legal Services in last year’s budget. I’d also like to completely eliminate the waitlist for the child care subsidy and give full market rate increases for Tier 3 counties, like Henderson County. I’d also put more state monies toward school nurses.
But I’m not king. The budget reflects compromises between other legislators’ priorities. We represent different districts with different problems, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that even those of us who worked closely together on the budget still have things we’d like to change. I’m supporting the budget because it funds the State’s primary needs, particularly education.
The Governor’s Budget…and the Vote
Some ask what was wrong with Governor Cooper’s budget. Directionally, I don’t have a huge disagreements in terms of his priorities — education, environmental protection, disaster relief and infrastructure.
My disagreement is with the spending he proposed. I arrived in Raleigh when we had a huge deficit, owed a lot of money to the federal government for unemployment compensation, and had minimal reserves to deal with natural disasters and financial downturns. Right now, the economy is good and unemployment is low. North Carolina is consistently rated as among the best states in which to do business.
We don’t need to roll back the scheduled tax cuts and spend down our reserves. We can tackle the needs in education, public safety or public health incrementally. With this budget, teachers will get pay raises for five years in a row, and I think we need to continue to provide raises until we reach the national average.
We don’t need to raise taxes by half a billion dollars. In listening to the debate on the budget yesterday on the House floor, my colleagues on the other side of the aisle constantly used the phrase “not spending enough” when talking about various governmental programs. It left me thinking whether they would think we’d ever spend enough.
We should save some of our excess revenues. We need to continue building state reserves for the time when a natural disaster or an economic downturn forces state government to provide services when our revenues may not be sufficient to address the needs.
Of the budgets I’ve voted on during my time at the legislature, this is the one of the best because I think it addresses the the state’s needs while not throwing money at every problem. We seem to have found the right balance.
In its first vote on the budget yesterday, the House approved it by a vote of 72-45, almost a party line vote. The second vote, held just a few minutes ago, was 66-44 due to the fact that 10 legislators were not present on the floor to vote. The Senate has already approved the budget, so it should be on the Governor’s desk today.