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Senator lauds compromise

RALEIGH – Nearly 80 days after it was due, state lawmakers finally reached an agreement on the $21.7 billion state budget for 2015-16 and with Gov. Pat McCrory signing it last Friday, North Carolina now has a budget in place.

Calling it a ‘common sense, affordable budget’ McCrory said the compromise reached between the House and Senate versions in the General Assembly included many of the goals needed to provide the tools North Carolina needs to continue what his administration accomplished during the past three years.

“Now we can work together to implement a common-sense vision for our great state that includes job creation, education, healthcare and transportation,” the governor said.

Meanwhile, NC District-3 state senator Erica Smith-Ingram of Northampton County said there were good appropriations and not enough attention to some other issues.

“As your Senator, I voted for this budget because it is a progressive plan that will move District 3 and the State of North Carolina forward,” Smith-Ingram said in a statement that highlighted her vote on some of the key points in the bill.

“While I didn’t like the $750 one-time bonus for state employees and teachers, the only other option was nothing at all.”

The Rural Broadband Infrastructure bill that Smith-Ingram introduced was placed in this year’s budget.

“This portion of the bill will develop a statewide plan that ensures all citizens of North Carolina access to broadband capability,” she said. “It further develops a statewide strategic plan that promotes a robust broadband infrastructure; and additionally, $14 million over the biennium is being invested to insure connectivity in all of our schools.”

The new budget also included about $400 million in income tax cuts, which will be offset by new sales taxes on repair, installation and maintenance services. Instead of redistributing the current sales tax that is collected across the state, the new budget expanded sales tax to include things such as vehicle repairs and services. Sales tax generated from the expansion will then be redistributed to rural counties.

“All of the counties in District 3 receive additional sales tax revenue,” Smith-Ingram emphasized. “This will mean a combined total of at minimum $10 million for District 3.

Other highlights the senator lauded were the Historic Preservation and Tax Credit which will restore and appropriated $8 million to invest in revitalization especially in rural areas; and, an appropriation of $3 million per year for Elizabeth City State University for stabilization at ECSU.

Funding for public education was one of the most debated issues in the budget. The House budget reflected a funding increase while the Senate’s budget would have had more serious adverse implications.

The original budget proposed by the House had sought a two percent raise for all state employees, but instead, the final plan reflected an increase from $33,000 to $35,000 in starting teacher pay.

Funding teacher assistants was an especially contentious item during this year’s budget cycle, as was funding for the state’s driver’s education program. The approved budget maintains the state’s current level of teacher assistants.

Smith-Ingram said the compromise and final budget provided some relief.

“The allocation provides approximately $313 million for compensation increases to state employees: the $750 bonus for all state employees, and step increases to teachers, assistant principals, principals, State Highway Patrol Troopers, clerks and magistrates,” the senator noted. “I will work diligently during the short-session in May to dedicate budget surplus revenues to fund a more significant and comprehensive pay raise for teachers and state employees.

“I also worked tirelessly in advocating for teacher assistants to remain in our budget,” she said. “I am especially proud that my and other legislators’ efforts were successful. The budget provides local school administrative units the dollar equivalent of teacher assistant positions.”

Smith-Ingram also sponsored a Driver’s Education Funding bill (Senate bill S515).

“I am proud to see that part of this budget includes my bill,” she proclaimed. “It funds driver’s education programs to all physically and mentally qualified persons who are older than 14 years and six months, are approved by the principal of the school, are enrolled in a public, private or homeschooled high school within the state, and have not previously enrolled in the program.”

The new budget has $300 million provided for economic development grants implemented through various provisions including restored appropriations for minority and small-businesses and Community Development Block Grants.

“The NC Works Career Coach Program will place community college career coaches in high schools to assist students with determining career goals and identifying community college programs that would enable students to achieve these goals,” Smith-Ingram highlighted.

“I am particularly proud of the State Broadband, Driver’s Education funding, NCWorks and the portions of the budget in which I was most directly involved. While it is not a perfect budget, I sincerely believe that northeastern North Carolina is better served with this budget than the previous version,” she concluded.