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New teacher plan better than others

N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory and pal-for-the-day House Speaker Thom Tillis have at least figured out that optics matter. In rolling out their mini-budget with their own plan for how to give raises to teachers and other state employees, they surrounded themselves with educators and lawmakers to indicate broad-based support.

But the expressions on the faces of many gathered for the Wednesday press conference weren’t exactly gleeful. And in truth, there’s not much to warrant glee.

Still, the budget plan does have the virtue of being better than the alternatives the House and Senate have rolled out. This plan doesn’t force teachers to give up their career status or tenure rights in return for a much deserved raise – which is what the Senate plan does – nor does it engage in fantasy financing by paying for teacher raises by increasing lottery advertising in hopes of luring more players and more lottery revenue – as the House plan does.

The measure at least offers a plausible way of giving teachers and state employees a pay boost. This plan, like the House bill already approved, provides an average 5 percent pay raise for teachers, a $1,000 salary hike for most state employees and a 1.44 percent cost-of-living adjustment for state retirees. But instead of using wished-for future lottery profits to fund the raises, the new plan relies on $116 million in additional lottery money from past-year surpluses. It also uses $81.6 million once earmarked for reserves.

The measure, to its merit, maintains teacher assistant jobs in lower grades, provides more money for textbooks, allows current teachers to maintain their tenure and restores salary bonuses to educators who receive a master’s degree in a related subject. The plan the Senate has approved slashes 7,000 teacher assistant jobs.

But the proposal has drawbacks. It cuts $361 million from state agencies, including deep cuts to the state’s university system. And it doesn’t adequately or persuasively account for Medicaid spending needs.

The House put $134 million in an account to cover extra costs from unprocessed Medicaid applications and a backlog of health care providers that remain unpaid, which represents a best-case scenario from fiscal analysts. The Senate puts the estimated need at $160 million, the worst-case scenario amount.

With significant backlogs of Medicaid applications, officials have been unable to provide accurate enrollment numbers or valid claims data. Coupled with the fact that the state has faced cost overruns each of the past four years – to the tune of $2 billion – best-case scenario numbers appear too optimistic.

Despite its flaws, this latest spending plan is a better budget starting point than the others.

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