RALEIGH— North Carolina House Republicans and Gov. Pat McCrory united Wednesday to try to force the Senate’s hand in sluggish state budget negotiations by pushing a scaled-back spending plan that focuses largely on raising teacher and state employee salaries.
But that alliance only seemed to further fracture relations with GOP senators, who remained convinced the positions of the House and governor on Medicaid spending aren’t conservative enough. The two chambers have passed rival $21.1 billion budgets in recent weeks, but their negotiators have only met once formally. The new fiscal year begins next week.
McCrory, Speaker Thom Tillis and other House Republicans gathered outside the Executive Mansion to endorse a trimmed-down proposal that they said fulfills a commitment to find short- and long-term solutions to teacher pay.
“The people of North Carolina all agree that we need to better compensate our teachers,” McCrory said.
However, while their plan makes $361 million in spending cuts contained in both Senate and House budgets, it omits many other unresolved issues, setting them aside for negotiations later.
The House budget committee met later to approve the plan, which includes the same average 5 percent teacher raise for next year that the House approved two weeks ago. The measure, expected on the House floor Thursday, also includes a pilot program sought by McCrory to reward teachers in hard-to-staff classes and teachers who perform well.
Missing from the news conference were Senate Republicans. Chamber leader Phil Berger said he wasn’t invited. The Senate backs a proposal that would give average 11 percent pay raises but requires veteran teachers to give up job protections such as tenure in exchange for the raise. Teachers have received one pay raise since 2008.
McCrory said he prefers the teacher pay proposal presented by House members as “the most pragmatic, visionary, long term, sustainable plan.”
Senate Republicans were visibly irritated by what they see as the latest legislative rift where McCrory has sided with the House.
Berger’s top lieutenant, Rules Chairman Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, called the bill the “latest budget gimmick” from House chief budget-writer Rep. Nelson Dollar and McCrory budget director Art Pope. Apodaca also said the measure fails to set aside enough money for the latest downgrade in the Medicaid picture. The House puts $134 million in a Medicaid reserve fund.
Berger said he hopes the condensed spending plan isn’t a sign House members have given up passing budget adjustments for all agencies. “To abandon the field before we even start seems to me to be an inappropriate tack at this time,” he told reporters.
Tillis, R-Mecklenburg and the GOP’s U.S. Senate candidate, said they’re not giving up on approving the broader adjustments to the second year of the two-year budget approved last summer. He cited a February news conference in which he, Berger and McCrory agreed to raise base pay for the newest teachers to $33,000 this coming fall and $35,000 during the 2015-16 school year.
“Let’s just go ahead and take this off the table, fulfill this promise then move on to completing the budget and getting out of town,” Tillis said.
The scaled-back bill deletes an increase in advertising spending for the state lottery and restricted ad content to generate another $106 million for the teacher raises. Fiscal staff members have since lowered that projection. Funding for teacher assistants also wouldn’t be cut, as the Senate plan did to pay for raises. Most state employees also would receive $1,000 pay raises.
Meanwhile, hundreds of teachers and administrators at the North Carolina Association of Educators rallied Wednesday in front of the Legislative Building and lobbied lawmakers for pay increases and preserving teacher assistant positions.
Debbie Abel, a New Hanover County elementary school teacher, said she’s not persuaded yet that promises by politicians on educator pay and spending will come to fruition.
“They’ve done a lot of talking, but it hasn’t trickled down to the schools,” Abel said. “It hasn’t come in my classroom.”