Another budget logjam broke Wednesday afternoon after state House negotiators agreed to abandon their plan to raise about $30 million by selling more lottery tickets.
The House plan to increase lottery revenue by doubling the ad budget while putting restrictions on ads at the same time was controversial and troubled from the start. The House decision to drop the idea from consideration appeared to kick-start negotiations that were getting bogged down by acrimony.
The public negotiation session over the $21.1 billion budget had a bumpy start earlier Wednesday with a walkout by state Senate Republicans and threats by legislators to keep at it until Christmas.
Legislators returned for their afternoon session to find a Christmas wreath on the podium, little Christmas stockings at Senate negotiators’ seats, and lumps of coal on House members’ desks.
The new budget year started on July 1, but House and Senate Republicans still need to work out significant differences over teacher salaries, education cuts, and Medicaid spending.
The House budget would give teachers average raises of 5 percent, while the Senate budget would raise average teacher salaries by 11 percent. Before the day ended, House Speaker Thom Tillis, a new addition to the negotiating committee, suggested that the two sides could meet in the middle to settle on 8 percent raises.
The higher Senate raises would come at a cost. The Senate proposes cutting $233 million in funding for teacher assistants, which would cost thousands of jobs. That’s something the House doesn’t want.
House negotiators invited educators to talk about the loss of teacher assistants just as districts are adjusting to a new state law that requires most students read at grade level before being promoted to fourth grade.
Superintendents from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district as well as Cumberland and Dare counties said the cut to teacher assistants would cost hundreds of jobs in the bigger districts and hurt schools’ ability to meet new student literacy requirements.
Senate Republicans walked out before the first superintendent spoke and didn’t return for an hour. They objected to hearing from non-legislators, saying speakers other than budget negotiators were not allowed unless agreed to by both sides.
“This isn’t your committee meeting,” Sen. Harry Brown, chief budget negotiator for his chamber, told Rep. Nelson Dollar, the chief negotiator for the House. “You decided you were going to be the rule-maker of this committee. The Senate isn’t going to allow that to happen.”
Dollar said it made sense to have public input during public meetings.
Gov. Pat McCrory weighed in on the walk out while at a meeting of his education cabinet at Shaw University.
“I was extremely disappointed that members of the Senate walked out on our superintendents and our teachers,” McCrory said. “I don’t think that’s the appropriate way to have dialogue with our educators and show respect to our educators.”
At one point, Senate negotiators offered to pay for all teacher assistants and give teachers 11 percent raises. But Dollar challenged them to come back with a plan to pay for it, suggesting that such a proposal would mean deeper cuts to Medicaid. The government insurance program for 1.7 million low-income children, select parents, and elderly and disabled people costs the state close to $4 billion. One of the conflicts between the House and Senate is how to cut costs and overhaul the program.
Sen. Neal Hunt, a Raleigh Republican, said budget writers had favored welfare spending over education spending for years.
Dollar, a Cary Republican, objected to Hunt referring to Medicaid as welfare.
Medicaid spends billions on mental health, pregnant women, people who have diabetes, or cancer, or heart disease, he said.
“I don’t see those things as welfare,” Dollar said. “I see those as treating our fellow 1.6, 1.7 million citizens of our state in a very humane way.”