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Lawmakers split on budget plans

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The N.C. House's approved version of next year’s state budget doesn't include controversial items that the Senate wants, but it's still drawing mixed reactions from area lawmakers.

The House unveiled its full $22.9 billion spending plan on Wednesday and gave it final approval by an 80-31 vote on Friday just after midnight. It's different in many ways from the Senate's approved version of the budget, though there's agreement on several priorities like teacher raises and tax cuts. The two chambers now have to hammer out their differences into a compromise plan that can be sent to Gov. Roy Cooper for either his signature or veto.

The House budget is also notable for what's not in it. The Senate proposed several major, controversial policy changes that area officials opposed.

The House budget doesn't include, for example, a three-year moratorium on wind farms. Some Republican senators, including state Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, claim wind farms need further study to prevent conflict with military facilities. However, Democrats and some House Republicans, including state Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, reject their concerns as unfounded, saying the moratorium would stifle economic investment.

The House budget also doesn't include a repeal of the state's certificate of need law, a law that requires health care providers to get state approval for new medical facilities and major equipment purchase. Some Republicans argue CON stifles competition that could lower costs, but local hospital officials warn the repeal would threaten hospitals' viability as specialists cherry-pick away the most profitable patients.

The House budget also doesn't propose merging counties' departments of social services. Some senators argue regional DSS offices are needed due to failures in child services, but DSS directors fear the merger could lead to a loss of service and a one-size-fits-all approach to safety net programs.

The House budget also doesn't include a provision in the Senate budget that drew support from local officials: a $75 million “needs-based” grant fund that would help pay for more school repair and construction in poor counties. The House didn't include it in its spending plan, instead directing more funding toward financial aid for college students and K-12 transportation.

Cook voted for the Senate budget and has endorsed all four proposals. In an email Friday, Cook declined to respond to those omissions in the House budget. He also declined to say whether he would vote for or against the House budget.

Noting the two versions of the budget will now head to conference committee, Cook said in his email, “I am confident that we will be able to reach a good compromise on a number of issues that are important to our state.”

Cook, whose 1st District includes all area counties, also noted that the House budget did not include the $2.8 million for Perquimans County Marine Industrial Park that he supports and which was included in the Senate’s spending plan. Perquimans officials say the $2.8 million would go toward digging a boat basin at the industrial park, providing a major economic boost for the county.

Cook also expressed concerns that the House budget reduces funding for oyster sanctuaries and cultch planting, an important priority for the state’s coastal communities. Oyster farming has huge potential for the state, he said, and “our goal is for North Carolina to become the 'Napa Valley' of oysters.” 

State Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Northampton, also declined to say whether she'd vote for or against the House budget, but offered it some praise.

She noted the House budget maintains funding for the Eastern North Carolina STEM Program supporting a summer program in her 3rd District, which includes Chowan County. According to a News & Observer report, Senate Republicans cut funding for that program and others in districts represented by Democrats in apparent frustration at their slowing down the budget with requested amendments.

However, she also called the House budget “a step in the right direction but too small a step.” Gov. Cooper, a fellow Democrat, proposed larger investments in education, teacher pay, rural broadband, economic development and other initiatives in his budget, she said.

Smith-Ingram also said she hoped to see the Senate's needs-based capital fund for schools restored in the final budget. Poor, rural districts need the help, she said.

Steinburg, whose 1st District includes area counties, including part of Pasquotank, voted for the House budget, though he also expressed disappointment that the school capital fund wasn't included.

“I liked that,” he said. Even if it doesn't end up in the final budget, he said he feels lawmakers now recognize rural school districts’ needs and are considering various ways to address them.

Steinburg also said he would push to have the $2.8 million for Perquimans' Marine Industrial Park restored in the final version of the budget, adding he's received assurances it will be.

As the two chambers move to strike a compromise budget, Steinburg also discussed two matters that could be potential dealbreakers. For one, he said the House is “adamant” about granting state retirees a cost-of-living raise. The House has proposed a 1.6-percent, one-time bonus, while the Senate has proposed none.

Steinburg also said last month he wouldn't support a budget with a wind energy moratorium. He again speculated Friday that, if the moratorium is in the final budget, it could prevent its enactment. Cooper might veto the budget over that provision and there may not be enough House Republican votes to override him, he said.

State Rep. Howard Hunter III, D-Hertford, flatly opposed the House budget, even though it didn't include the wind moratorium or other Senate provisions he opposed. He criticized the budget's process and contents.

“This year's budget was like a secret,” he said in an email, explaining Democrats got to see the full budget Tuesday night, only hours before the first committee vote on the plan Wednesday.

“My position on the overall budget is that it's not bad but it does not do enough,” Hunter said.

He said the governor's budget gives larger teacher raises, eliminated the waiting list for pre-kindergarten students, provides additional funding for school support staff, and helps teachers buy classroom supplies. He also noted the House budget increases overall education spending only about half as much as the governor's budget.

Hunter, whose 5th District includes a portion of Pasquotank, also blasted the House budget for not providing funding for rural broadband. The House plan only spends $250,000 for the state's broadband office, rather than pumping millions of dollars, he said, into “middle-” and “last-mile” broadband projects.

“We could have used $100 million to invest in the infrastructure of broadband,” Hunter said. “This is badly needed in our under-served Tier 1 counties. We have schools that are moving away from textbooks and using technology and once these students get home they have no internet to do assignments.”

Hunter also said he'll continue to vote “no” on the budget unless it includes larger raises for state employees, teachers and a cost-of-living raise for state retirees.

To view a side-by-side comparison of the gubernatorial, House and Senate budgets, click here.

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