Politics & Government

NC House clears $22.2 billion budget plan

The N.C. House budget, passed Friday morning, restores the medical tax deduction for those with high medical bills. Many elderly citizens – and their families – complained after the General Assembly eliminated the deduction.
The N.C. House budget, passed Friday morning, restores the medical tax deduction for those with high medical bills. Many elderly citizens – and their families – complained after the General Assembly eliminated the deduction. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

UNC Charlotte was a winner. So were teachers, courts, taxpayers with high medical bills and supporters of historic preservation and the state’s film industry.

American Airlines was a loser, as were most drivers.

The $22.2 billion N.C. House spending plan drew bipartisan support when it passed 93-23 early Friday morning. Thirty-two Democrats joined most Republicans in voting yes.

Only one Mecklenburg County lawmaker – Democrat Beverly Earle – voted against it.

“It is a much more bipartisan budget than we have seen recently,” said Republican Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews.

Democratic Rep. Tricia Cotham of Matthews said the budget isn’t everything she’d want, but “it’s certainly better than it could have been.”

The spending plan – 6 percent higher than the current budget – drew fire from the right and the left.

Donald Bryson, state director of the conservative Americans for Prosperity, called the budget “fiscally irresponsible” and a “reverse Robin Hood.”

Chris Fitzsimon of the liberal N.C. Policy Watch said House leaders are celebrating a budget “that does not make things appreciably worse in North Carolina … It keeps things as bad as they were for the last few years.”

Now, the budget goes to the Senate, where spending increases and tax credits will face more scrutiny. Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican who heads the Senate Finance committee, said the Senate budget would be in line with Gov. Pat McCrory’s plan, which increases spending by about 2.5 percent.

Here are some highlights of the House plan:

UNC Charlotte

The budget includes $90 million in bonds to build a new campus science building. That would replace a building that school officials say is too small and outdated.

Chancellor Philip Dubois said half of the school’s students with declared majors are in fields such as science and technology that would benefit from a new building.

The budget would also send UNCC $500,000 to do economic modeling for state agencies. It includes money for enrollment growth at UNCC and other university system campuses.

Teacher raises

Beginning teachers would see their annual salaries rise to the national average of $35,000 under the bill. Other teachers and all state employees would get a 2 percent raise.

“One of my biggest issues has been improving teacher pay, and this budget increased teacher pay across the board,” said Cotham, a former teacher.

Also included: More money for school vouchers, or so-called “Opportunity Scholarships,” to a total of $17.6 million.

American Airlines

Lawmakers pulled a provision that would have extended a fuel tax credit for American Airlines, the largest tenant of Charlotte’s hub airport.

The break, which essentially caps the tax on the airline’s jet fuel at $2.5 million, would have been extended for four years under earlier versions of the bill.

House leaders said the credit doesn’t need to be in the budget because it appears in an economic development bill that passed the chamber in March. That bill, however, is stuck in the Senate. The airline has lobbied heavily for keeping the tax cap.

Medical deductions

The budget would restore tax deductions for medical expenses, which were eliminated last session.

Last month, many lawmakers heard from angry taxpayers – particularly the elderly – who could no longer deduct medical costs.

According to Brawley, restoration would cost $54 million in the next fiscal year.

Historic preservation and films

A scaled-back version of the state’s historic preservation tax credit program was included in the budget. Such a program is a top priority for Gov. Pat McCrory, whose secretary of cultural resources has pushed it across the state.

The budget also includes $40 million a year in film grants.

Since a program of tax credits for film production expired, advocates have said the state’s film industry has begun moving elsewhere.

Medical examiners

The budget boosts the state’s medical examiner system. The proposed changes come in response to a series of 2014 Observer stories that found that medical examiners are poorly trained and routinely skip basic investigative steps.

Among other things, the budget would:

▪ Mandate training for medical examiners for the first time.

▪ Double pay for medical examiners, from $100 to $200 per case.

▪ Increase autopsy fees, from $1,250 to $1,750 per exam.

State Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican, is proposing a major overhaul of the medical examiner system, including replacing the current volunteers with full-time trained investigators.

DMV fees

House Republicans dropped a provision to raise motor vehicle fees by 50 percent. So they settled for a 30 percent jump. The money will help fund state transportation needs.

“After discussions within the (Republican) caucus, it was determined that they wanted to lower the impact of those fees,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Wake County Republican who oversees the House Appropriations Committee.

The budget would raise the price of an eight-year driver’s license from $32 to $41.60. The annual renewal for a car registration – not including county property taxes, which are collected at the same time – would rise from $28 to $36.40.

Staff writer Ames Alexander and Bruce Siceloff of the (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.

Morrill: 704-358-5059

How Mecklenburg lawmakers voted

Here’s how Charlotte-area lawmakers voted on the $22.2 billion budget plan.

Voting Yes

Democrats: Kelly Alexander, Becky Carney, Tricia Cotham, Carla Cunningham, Rodney Moore.

Republicans: Dan Bishop, John Bradford, Bill Brawley, Rob Bryan, Charles Jeter, Jacqueline Schaffer.

Voting No

Democrats: Beverly Earle

Republicans: None