Politics & Government

NC lawmakers focus on teacher, employee raises in McCrory’s budget plan

State Budget Director Andrew Heath gives details of the N.C. governor's 2016-17 state budget during a press conference Friday morning, April 22, 2016, at the North Carolina National Guard Joint Task Force headquarters in west Raleigh.
State Budget Director Andrew Heath gives details of the N.C. governor's 2016-17 state budget during a press conference Friday morning, April 22, 2016, at the North Carolina National Guard Joint Task Force headquarters in west Raleigh. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Legislators in both parties voiced concerns Wednesday about the pay proposal for teachers and state employees in Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget, but bigger raises could prove difficult under conservative spending levels.

McCrory’s budget director, Andrew Heath, gave legislators the governor’s full proposal Wednesday morning for the fiscal year that begins July 1. McCrory had released highlights Friday.

The $22.8 billion proposal doesn’t include the income tax cuts sought by legislative leaders and would give state employees a one-time bonus averaging 3 percent. The budget would be a 2.8 percent spending increase over the current fiscal year; Senate leaders’ target is 2 percent.

Teachers would get more pay boosts than some other state employees, with an average salary increase of 5 percent and a 3.5 percent one-time bonus aimed at veteran educators who have reached the state’s salary cap. The plan would bring the average teacher pay to $50,000, including local supplements.

“Among the governor’s strongest priorities is teacher pay,” Heath said. “If there’s one takeaway from this budget, it’s the governor’s commitment to teachers in North Carolina.”

Democrats said the plan is too conservative in a growing economy.

“Our spending levels and critical state employee salaries would lead us to believe that it’s still 2009,” Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue said in a news release. “This weakening trend will continue to drive talent away from government work and into the private sector. From teachers and prosecutors to parks staff and first responders, we need to offer these people the kind of pay they deserve.”

While the plan doesn’t include an across-the-board raise for all state employees, it would provide targeted increases for hard-to-fill positions such as correctional officers. All employees would be eligible for a one-time bonus that would equate to an average of 3 percent, with a cap of $3,000. Agency directors would determine how to distribute the bonuses.

Some legislators wondered why teachers would get bigger raises than other state workers. “How do you give an increase to teachers statewide of 5 percent and not give the same to other state employees?” asked Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Union County Republican, adding that the discrepancy could hurt morale. “How do we justify that in a budget cycle?”

Heath said the decision to give teachers more was “a matter of priorities.”

“The governor wants to invest in teacher pay above other sectors of employees in North Carolina,” he said. “It’s investing in the future of the state.”

Sen. Harry Brown of Jacksonville, the Senate’s top budget writer, said he likes targeting raises for certain state employees. He said that some employees are “overpaid” and that salaries should reflect market forces.

“When you do across-the-board pay raises, what you do is exacerbate the problem,” Brown said.

State retirees would not get a cost-of-living pension increase in the governor’s plan. “I have a serious problem with not giving retired state employees and teachers a cost-of-living adjustment,” said Rep. Gary Pendleton, a Raleigh Republican. “They retired when they were making next to nothing.”

House budget writer Nelson Dollar said there’s “quite a bit of support for across-the-board raises in the House as well as looking at the cost-of-living adjustment for retirees.”

Senate Republicans have said they want to increase the standard deduction for personal income taxes from $15,500 to $17,500. The standard deduction is the base amount of income that isn’t taxed unless a taxpayer chooses itemized deductions.

That proposal isn’t in the governor’s budget, but Brown said Wednesday that there’s room in the budget for the tax cut.

Legislators plan to continue reviewing McCrory’s proposal Thursday morning and will then draw up their own budget plan. Dollar said he hopes to release the House budget bill “in the next few weeks.”

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter

Other budget highlights

▪ $2 million for a scholarship program for 300 math and science teachers

▪ $3 million to increase advertising for tourism

▪ $4.6 million to use new technology to prevent prison inmates from accessing cell phones

▪ $21 million for additional salary increases for state troopers, correctional officers, law enforcement agents, prosecutors and public defenders

▪ $30 million for mental health and substance abuse programs

▪ $750,000 for Zika virus preparedness through mosquito control and three new entomologists

▪ $3.8 million for extra driver’s license examiners to shorten DMV wait times

▪ $2.2 million to address the State Crime Lab’s backlog

▪ $2.5 million for special court programs such as drug treatment courts

▪ $3 million for faculty retention programs at state universities

Teacher pay: A closer look

McCrory said his budget would raise the average North Carolina teacher’s pay to $50,000 for the first time. If the legislature goes along, it will be the first time since the days of $5,000 salaries that the average N.C. teacher’s annual income starts with a 5.

The hike to $50,000 would come from an average 5 percent raise. It would put teachers closer to their all-time peak in purchasing power — but not quite there.

For decades, according to the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics, the average North Carolina teacher typically made more than $50,000 in today’s dollars.

The average teacher in 1989-90 made $27,883, according to the center, the equivalent of $50,802 today. In 1999-2000 it was $39,404, the equivalent of $54,491 today.

Just before the recession, in 2007-08, it was $47,354, the equivalent of $52,375 today. At the height of the recession in 2009-10 it was $46,850, the equivalent of $51,163 today.

Staff writer Will Doran