Legislative leaders signaled Wednesday that they’re likely to go along with Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposal for teacher pay hikes – even though they’ll begin rewriting his spending plan Thursday.
McCrory unveiled a budget that would give teachers and other state employees raises totaling $263 million, despite a $445 million revenue shortfall.
The Charlotte Republican would spend more for pre-kindergarten programs and road maintenance as well as provide money for 19 additional coal ash inspectors and three pilot energy-drilling projects.
House Speaker Thom Tillis of Huntersville called it “a great starting point.” Senate GOP Leader Phil Berger of Rockingham County hailed it as “a balanced budget proposal that prioritizes increasing teacher pay and developing our domestic energy sector without raising taxes.”
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Despite the olive branches, McCrory’s proposal is expected to serve as little more than a guide for House and Senate budget writers, though lawmakers suggested that some form of pay raises are likely to survive.
North Carolina has dropped to 46th in the country in teacher pay.
Despite the pay raises, McCrory’s plan had critics. Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, called the proposed teacher pay raise “too little too late.” And University of North Carolina System President Tom Ross said proposed university cuts “would make it increasingly hard for UNC campuses to recruit and retain the best and most accomplished faculty.”
The proposed $20.99 billion spending plan is an adjustment to the budget passed last year. Specifically McCrory’s proposal includes:
• Raising starting teacher pay 7 percent, to $33,000 a year with a pledge to raise it to $35,000 next year. Many other teachers would get raises of 2 percent to 4.3 percent for the coming school year. The total cost: $108.4 million.
• Giving state employees a $1,000 bump in salary and benefits at a total cost of $146.6 million.
• Adding 19 additional positions for coal ash regulators, at a cost of $1.2 million.
• Transferring $50 million to the so-called rainy day fund and another $50 million to an account for renovations and repair.
While the $1,000 pay raise would extend to UNC employees, the university system itself would take a hit of over $49 million, or about 2 percent less than originally budgeted.
“We had to make some very, very difficult decisions,” McCrory said in presenting his plan to a room packed with reporters and TV cameras.
But Ross said the UNC cuts make the university less competitive. He said the state provides $1,000 less per full-time-equivalent student than it did six years ago.
“We have been forced to raise tuition in order to maintain the excellence for which we are known,” he said in a statement. “While we will continue to search for additional efficiencies and savings, we cannot continue to shift the costs of higher education from the state to students and their families.”
House Minority Leader Larry Hall blasted a budget that he said “guts our world-class university system.”
“The governor’s teacher pay plan simply kicks the can down the road,” he added in a statement. “We are facing a teacher pay crisis. … We must become more competitive both nationally and regionally so we can retain and attract the very best teachers. The governor’s plan is not enough.”
McCrory and Budget Director Art Pope said the state would more than offset the $445 million revenue shortfall with savings from earlier budgets. Pope blamed the shortfall on several factors, including federal tax law changes and changes in state tax withholding.
Not to blame, he said, were tax cuts enacted last year expected to cost the state $2.4 billion over five years.
“Last year (Republicans) made a fundamental choice,” said Stein. “the choice to cut public education by nearly a half-billion dollars to give tax give-aways to large out-of-state corporations and millionaires, people who do not need the extra money.”
A study by the conservative John Locke Foundation found a broader group of beneficiaries. It found the average household at every income level would pay less this year, with a savings of about $150 million a year for households making less than $50,000.
One Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools official liked what he saw in the governor’s budget.
In addition to pay raises for teachers and other employees, it would double statewide funding for textbooks, continue master’s degree salary increase for teachers and fund three “cooperative innovative” high schools in CMS. The special schools would allow students to earn college credits.
Jonathan Sink, CMS’s associate general counsel, praised the proposal, particularly the teacher raises.
“Money talks in any industry,” he said. “At the end of the day, we want to keep our best teachers in the classroom and attract ones who we don’t already have.”