• 66°

Budget battle comes with added expense

By STEPHANIE CARSON

NC News Service

RALEIGH – North Carolina lawmakers have missed the deadline to pass a budget by nine weeks. According to published reports, it costs the state an extra $42,000 for every day the Legislature meets and there is still no firm budget in place for the next fiscal year.

Logan Smith, communications director at Progress NC Action, says based on those figures, the state has spent more than $1.3 million as a result of the missed deadline, while state agencies live in limbo.

“Every agency, every program in the state, that is paid for by the state is really having to make decisions about their new fiscal year budget based on, right now, guesswork,” says Smith.

As of now, state House and Senate leaders have agreed to a budget that keeps state spending at 2010 levels, when unemployment was high and the Great Recession was still impacting the economy. Many Republican lawmakers argue the tight budget is a way to reduce waste and increase productivity with available resources.

At the outset of the budget talks it seemed unlikely that state employees would receive raises and teacher pay was destined to remain at the bottom nationally. Thousands of teacher assistants such as Melinda Zarate, spokesperson with the North Carolina Association of Teacher Assistants, could lose their jobs.

“Public education should be the priority in North Carolina,” says Zarate. “That shouldn’t be the last thing the legislators look at to fund, that should be, ‘Let’s fully fund public education, and then we’ll see what’s left over to work with.'”

Many school districts are unsure of how to budget for the coming year as students return to school since they are unclear about what money will be coming from the state. Smith says lawmakers should practice the principles being taught in North Carolina’s schools.

“If a student habitually turns in work late, if they go eight weeks without turning in an assignment, they’re going to get an F,” he says. “But for lawmakers, there’s no accountability.”

The House and Senate have agreed to a compromised budget of $21.735 billion. They differ in how to spend that taxpayer money. The House wants to build off North Carolina’s economic upturn to reinvest in schools (to include keeping the teacher assistants and funding for Driver’s Education), raise the bar for teacher pay, and update old court technology. The Senate set spending numbers artificially low, and added tax, economic development, and Medicaid policy into the budget.

There is debate in the General Assembly to give teachers and state employees a $750 bonus by the end of fiscal year 2015. Legislators will not receive this bonus. Teachers will still progress and receive raises for step increases. Starting teachers (0-4 yrs) will see a salary increase from $33,000/yr to $35,000/yr. and House and Senate leaders agreed to return during the short session next year to look at teacher salary increases for 2016. The debate also includes a three percent salary increase for all sworn members of the NC Highway Patrol. Administrative staff will not receive this salary increase.

Smith points out this is the longest budget delay in at least 13 years and it comes after lawmakers took a week-long vacation after missing their July first deadline.

According to a chart on the webpage of Rep. McGrady (R-Henderson), since 1980, the General Assembly has used a temporary measure for budget authority 25 times and only approved a budget before the new fiscal year 11 times.  It would seem that the use of temporary budgets has become the rule rather than the exception in state government.

The newest extension, approved earlier this week by the House and Senate, gives lawmakers until Sept. 18 to complete work on the state’s two-year budget.