Senate Republicans pushed their state spending proposal through a pair of committees Tuesday, but not before giving Democrats and advocacy groups plenty to pick at when it comes to reshaping public school funding and raising fees.
The North Carolina government budget plan cleared the Senate's appropriations and finance panels with only a little vocal push back following the approval of a handful of amendments. The first floor vote was expected Wednesday as the GOP-led General Assembly aims toward completing a budget to present to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory by late next month.
The proposal, totaling nearly $20.6 billion in spending for the fiscal year starting July 1, earmarks several hundred million dollars for projected Medicaid spending growth and tax reductions as part of a yet-released tax code overhaul.
"Medicaid is the major driver of this budget," said Sen. Pete Brunstetter, R-Forsyth and one of the chamber's chief budget-writers. He told colleagues that the measure also tries to follow McCrory's effort in his budget proposal toward "healing the state's balance sheet" through placing money toward repairs and renovations of state building and in reserves.
Democrats railed against the elimination of funding for teacher assistants for second- and third-grade classrooms next year - a reduction of $142 million, which is the equivalent of more than 4,500 positions. They accused Republicans of not going far enough in restoring funds for local school districts after years of cutbacks going back to the Great Recession, resulting in cutting thousands more teacher positions. They also complained about eliminating caps on class sizes in the early grades.
"You can take these positions out of our schools but the schools desperately need more help, not less," said Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, told Republicans. "We're just kind of dismantling the public schools until they're going to implode."
GOP senators accused Nesbitt and others of crying wolf, arguing that their forecasts of more than 9,000 school layoffs in 2011 didn't materialize. "I think I heard this same speech two years ago," quipped Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson.
District data provided to state education officials, however, did show almost 2,500 layoffs of school personnel that school year. Republicans said they've provided high levels of flexibility in the proposed budget to school districts to spend state money to preserve teacher assistant positions if they wish. The state currently provides teacher assistant funding in K-3 classrooms.
Local school districts would continue to receive money for assistants in kindergarten and first grade, where studies show they do the most good toward student achievement, said Sen. Dan Soucek, R-Watauga and an education budget subcommittee co-chairman. Otherwise, Soucek said, Republicans are prioritizing spending on classroom teachers.
"One philosophy that we have here is the understanding that the best possible thing you can do for the education of our students is a quality teacher in the classroom," he said. But nothing replaces people in the classroom helping students, said Brian Lewis, a lobbyist for the North Carolina Association of Educators.
"Whenever you cut $140 million out of teacher assistants, you're going to have fewer adults teaching more students," he said.
The budget bill also would require tolls on all ferry routes by Nov. 1, two years after another Republican-effort to collect new and existing tolls on most routes was approved but later got pushed back when then-Gov. Beverly Perdue intervened. Revenues for tolls, which have been a controversial issue for coastal residents using ferries for free for decades, would be dedicated toward ferry capital projects.
A budget provision would require electric car owners to pay an additional $100 annual registration fee and hybrid owners another $50. These cars pay no or fewer gasoline taxes, a major component of road-building proceeds.
"I just seems logical to me that they should pay a small fee for the use of the highways and the wear and tear they put on the highways," said Sen. Neal Hunt, R-Wake, another chief budget-writer. Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, said the state should be providing an incentive for these cars, or at least earmark the $1.5 million projected to be collected annually from the fee to expand the number of electric charging stations.
The budget also would increase annual registration fee for lobbyists and the organizations they represent from $100 to $250 and require nonprofits to pay the full amount. "The logic is everyone is treated the same," said Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Union.
The spending plan would allow local school districts to raise the amount they can charge students participating in driver's education programs from $45 to $65, generating $2.8 million. Districts initially were allowed to charge up to $45 in 2011.