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N.C. Senate delivers $20.58 billion budget proposal

The state Senate released a $20.58 billion proposed budget late Sunday night that would eliminate class-size limits for the youngest public school students, move the State Bureau of Investigation to a department the governor’s appointee controls and puts various environmental programs under the control of a state agency.

The proposal represents a 2.3 percent increase over the current budget and is about $17 million short of the budget Gov. Pat McCrory proposed in March.

“This budget stands in sharp contrast to the failed attempts of previous leaders to tax, spend and borrow their way to prosperity,” Senate leader Phil Berger said in a statement. “We are eager to work with the House of Representatives to adopt a budget that smartly invests in our key priorities while living within our means.”

Lead Senate budget writers plan to answer questions about the budget Monday. The proposal is on a track to win Senate approval and be sent to the state House by the end of the week. This is the second session in modern times where Republicans have full control of the legislature. Unlike last year, when they battled with former Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, legislators are working with Republican Gov. McCrory on the document that is a broad reflection of government priorities.

Opposition was growing to provisions in the budget even before it was released Sunday night. Attorney General Roy Cooper plans to hold a news conference Monday to oppose the transfer of the state Bureau of Investigation from his department to the Department of Public Safety.

The N.C. Association of Educators and other education advocates don’t like the provision that lifts the limits on class sizes in kindergarten through third grades.

“We’d have very serious concerns if we see them get rid of class size limits,” said Rob Thompson, executive director of the Covenant with North Carolina’s Children. Research shows that “with smaller class sizes you get better outcomes for kids,” he said.

Senate leaders have proposed lifting the limit so school district administrators can decide how to deploy teachers. Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican and advocate for the idea, has said that administrators are in a position to make the best decisions, and they’ll be watchful because they won’t want students to perform poorly on standardized tests.

Unlike the McCrory budget proposal to add N.C. Pre-K slots, the Senate would reduce spaces in the public preschool for at-risk 4-year-olds by 2,500 in the first year of the budget and 5,000 in the second year, and turn them into subsidized childcare slots.

The Senate budget does not appear to include money to compensate victims of the state’s eugenics program. McCrory put $10 million in his budget proposal to compensate victims. A proposal by Perdue and the N.C. House last year to include $50 million for eugenics compensation failed because Senate Republicans didn’t want it.

The budget would dissolve the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, a favorite program for former Democratic Senate leader Marc Basnight, and transfer staff that supported a board of trustees to the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

One of the biggest spending increases is for Medicaid, the government insurance program for poor children, low-income pregnant women, the elderly and disabled. The Medicaid budget will increase by about $340 million next year. Senate budget writers learned that an error by the state Department of Health and Human Services last year in calculating Medicaid growth would force a big increase next year.

McCrory and legislative leaders announced last week that the budget would include a provision to allow state officials to take the next step in a controversial plan to turn Medicaid into a managed care program run by outside companies.

Bonner: 919-829-4821
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