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North Carolina House budget gets initial OK as Senate unveils stripped-down plan

A North Carolina budget-adjustment measure penned by House Republicans received initial approval Wednesday in the chamber, legislation that covers a massive increase in private-school voucher demand, locates money for child care centers and raises worker and teacher pay further than already scheduled.

Four House Democrats joined all Republicans present to vote 73-36 for the bill, which makes changes to the second year of the two-year state government budget enacted last fall to reflect new fiscal demands and a nearly $1 billion bump in anticipated revenue collections.

A final House vote is expected Thursday, after which the future of the $31.7 billion spending plan dims in the Senate, where GOP leaders aren’t willing to spend that much money and use hundreds of millions of dollars from special reserves.

Senate leader Phil Berger has threatened to tell senators to go home if House counterparts don’t accept their preferred changes by the close of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. Berger’s office late Wednesday released a significantly trimmed-down $31.4 billion spending plan.

But the House and Senate plans do agree on providing $487 million to programs that help K-12 students attend private schools and eliminate their waiting lists. Nearly all of the funds would go to the state’s Opportunity Scholarships to help end waiting lists of over 50,000 students who are qualified to receive scholarships this fall, and cover increased demand permanently. The program was greatly expanded last year when family income limits to receive a grant were eliminated.

Parents are “expecting it because we promised it. So what are you going to do, go back on your promise and say that kid can’t go to school just because it’s a private school?” Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, a Wilkes County Republican and budget committee chairman, asked Democrats during the House budget debate.

The House and Senate plans also would each provide roughly $135 million to replace much of the child care stabilization grants coming from the federal government that are set to expire in July. The grants began during the pandemic and have been used by child care centers often to boost employee wages.

House Democrats who spoke attacked the budget bill, particularly for the private-school scholarships that they’ve opposed for years and for the lack of even more child care funds they say are needed to keep the centers open. They accused Republicans of using much of the state’s revenue overcollections for the vouchers, instead of using it for traditional public schools where teachers are underpaid and classrooms underfunded.

“What does it say that we talk about fiscal conservatism except for when it comes to supporting private school vouchers for the wealthiest in this state?” Rep. Caleb Rudow, a Buncombe County Democrat, asked GOP colleagues. “What does it our say about your values when we leave parents wondering if their child care centers are going to close this summer?”

The House proposal would raise teacher and state worker pay above the increases already planned in the enacted two-year budget.

Rank-and-file state employees would get 4% raises, not 3%, with 9% raises for probation and parole and correctional officers. And the average 3% raises for teachers already in place would grow to 4.4% First-year teachers would get a $44,000 entry salary this fall, not $41,000 as is currently planned. The Senate plan sticks with the pay raises backed last year.

Any enacted spending measure would head to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who is a longtime vouchers opponent. His budget proposal would have offered even higher raises to teachers and state employees and spend hundreds of millions of dollars more for child care and early education initiatives. But Cooper’s influence is limited. Republicans hold narrow veto-proof majorities in both chambers.

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