NC General Assembly nears final OK on budget Cooper to sign

Politics

Gov. Roy Cooper (AP photo)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina legislators on Wednesday neared sending a final state government budget that’s over four months late to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. His announcement the day before that he’ll sign the plan into law halted any drama over a possible repeat of a 2019 budget impasse.

The House and Senate voted separately by overwhelming margins in favor of the plan that spends $25.9 billion this fiscal year and $27 billion next year, not including several billion dollars more in COVID-19 relief from Washington.

The Senate, which voted 41-7 for the measure, already gave its initial approval by a similar vote on Tuesday, just after the Democratic governor said he would sign the measure when it reaches his desk.

Cooper said the good within the plan outweighed the items he disliked during a time of great need following the pandemic. North Carolina hasn’t had a comprehensive budget in place in 2 1/2 years because the 2019 stalemate never got fully resolved.

Cooper’s decision meant most Democrats ended up voting for the bill, which was assembled by House and Senate Republicans with input from Cooper. A final House vote must occur Thursday.

Republican legislators focused on tax reductions as well as significant increases in health care, infrastructure and education spending — especially bonuses and higher salaries for K-12 teachers and staff. There is also $9.6 billion in cash earmarked for infrastructure, of which $3.6 billion comes from federal relief dollars. School construction will benefit from $800 million in state lottery profits.

The budget bill “will improve every community in this state and the lives of every citizen,” Rep. Donny Lambeth, a Forsyth County Republican and a top budget-writer, told colleagues during debate before the House voted 104-10 for the plan. “This is a once-in-a-generation budget.”

The bill contains $100 million annually for a new teacher salary supplement that gives disproportionate help to low-income counties with already high property tax rates. Teachers in some counties could see an additional $4,250 annually. But teachers in five of the seven largest counties are left out of the program.

Cooper and other Democrats say the education funding does fall short of an order issued by a trial judge last week directing that the state spend $1.7 billion more on public education over the next two years to help narrow the state’s public education inequities.

GOP leaders said Judge David Lee can’t order money be appropriated — setting up a likely constitutional showdown. Cooper sides with Lee, who is overseeing the “Leandro” litigation, named for an original student plaintiff in the lawsuit that began a quarter-century ago.

“We have the money, and it is the constitutional right of our children for a sound basic education,” said Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham County Democrat who spoke and voted against the bill. While there is much good in the proposal, she added, “there are too many issues and problems, (and) we did not go far enough.”

But legislators won over other Democrats in part on other large spending provisions, including $1 billion in federal funding for expanding broadband service, $1.7 billion for water, sewer and wastewater improvements and $800 million for disaster preparations and recovery from Tropical Storm Fred this year.

The measure forces Cooper to accept significant tax reductions for the highest wage earners and the elimination of the corporate income tax at the end of the decade. Cooper has railed against GOP legislators for cutting taxes for the rich and out-of-state corporations. And a provision reining in his emergency powers takes effect in early 2023.

Other provisions within the budget:

— spends $1.4 billion for scores of University of North Carolina and community college system projects, including $75 million toward construction of a new Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University.

— directs the UNC System office to move its staff from Chapel Hill to Raleigh by the end of 2022, with plans to relocate them to the downtown state government complex.

— creates a new Cabinet-level Department of Adult Correction to oversee prisons and prisoner care, separating duties that have been within the Department of Public Safety.

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