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House Democrats offer fierce opposition to budget compromise

Before the House gave preliminary approval, 77-40, to the state budget compromise bill today, Democrats railed against what they said were weaknesses in the plan.

During the House debate, they attacked the plan’s teacher pay proposal, education savings accounts (ESAs), and the large amount of pork they said Republicans put in the bill.

House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake, said of the Republicans, “You’re the Golden State Warriors of pork,” referencing the basketball team who won the 2017 NBA Finals. 

Jackson said that the teacher pay proposal in the budget plan amounts to millions of dollars fewer than Governor Roy Cooper put in his plan. Cooper’s plan would have increased teacher pay an average of five percent in both years of the biennium. 

The budget compromise gives teachers an average 3.3 percent salary increase in the first year and a 9.6 percent increase over the biennium. 

“The bottom line is clear: $440 million less in your budget with a 25-year teacher getting a $300 a year raise,” Jackson said. 

He also added that the budget compromise does not give any raise to starting teachers. 

House Minority Whip Bobbie Richardson, D-Franklin, jumped on that line of argument, saying the teacher pay plan does not put the state on track to meet the national average like the Governor’s plan did. She said that money that goes into teacher pay stays in the community.

“What we need instead of a tax cut is investment,” she said. 

Jackson said that the budget compromise will also lead to fewer students opting to become teachers. He pointed out the provision in the budget that eliminates retirement health benefits for new teachers starting in 2021. The change means teachers hired before 2021 will still get the benefits when they retire, but teachers hired after will not. 

The failure to include the proposal in the Governor’s budget to give a $150 stipend to teachers for classroom supplies also came under fire. Jackson said the money that could have funded the initiative instead went to pork. 

“We do it to give out downtown revitalization grants to areas that haven’t even asked for them,” he said. He added that such grants are even going to unincorporated towns. 

“If you aren’t even a town, how do you have a downtown area that needs revitalization?” he asked.

Richardson was concerned, in particular, for rural, economically challenged communities that she said do not benefit as much under the budget proposal. One lawmaker pointed out to Richardson a provision in the budget that uses growth in lottery funds over a number of years to fund school construction in rural areas. 

Rep. Rosa Gill, D-Wake, focused her ire on education savings accounts. The program would give up to $9,000 in public money to families of children with disabilities to use on things such as tuition for non-public schools, books and other supplies, costs of testing, and more. 

She asked Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, if the accounts would be something that parents put money into.

“Most of the time when you see a savings account, you assume that someone is contributing money to that account,” she said. 

Horn said these parents had done their part already.

“I suspect the parents of those children have been contributing quite a bit of money to care for their children,” he said. 

Gill went on to liken the education savings accounts to the opportunity scholarship program, but “on steroids.” 

“This is just another voucher program. In addition to opportunity scholarships and your special education voucher program, these programs divert money from our public schools to non-public schools,” she said. 

She said that under the budget compromise, one student could access all three programs, potentially getting up to $21,200 to use outside the public school system. 

“The monies that we are talking about putting in these special voucher programs can certainly be used by our public school system,” she said. 

She said the current opportunity scholarship programs need to be examined for effectiveness before the state moves forward with yet another. 

Rep. Amos Quick, D-Guilford, also questioned Horn on the education savings accounts, noting that the program has a provision that could remove participants if they do not adhere to the terms of the agreement. He wondered what would happen to students who were removed.

 “I probably don’t have a really good answer for that,” Horn said before speculating that, if he were the parent of a child in the program, the student would simply return to his or her original situation. 

“I can only imagine that my child would be no worse off than he or she was before,” he said. 

Quick said that scenario posed a problem. He noted that in Arizona, the first state to try these accounts, parents have been found to have fraudulently used the state funds to buy things like big screen televisions and gym memberships. 

If that were to happen here and a student were kicked out, Quick said they would return to a traditional public school but without the public money that has already been allocated to the non-public school. In essence, the traditional public school would be getting the student without getting the money that pays to educate him or her. He said without more specifics on what would happen to students who were removed from the program, it’s a “dangerous” proposal. 

Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, compared this budget process to the 2011 process, reading aloud unattributed quotes from that year.

“Consider these statements from 2011: I heard this about the budget,” he said. “’Radical budget. Damaging budget. To our institutions in North Carolina, it is a destructive budget. It is backwards looking…It’s especially bad for teachers. It’s bad for children. it’s bad for business.'”

After reading that and other comments, he went on to say that the comments were not borne out by time. 

“Consider what I’ve just said. Those negative comments from the past, consider that with the reality of the present, North Carolina has become a better place to live and to work,” he said. “By many national accounts, our state is in the upper echelon of many economic and lifestyle metrics.” 

Jackson noted the budget compromise’s failure to come up with a permanent solution to House Bill 13 which delayed full implementation of class size restrictions that remove flexibility school districts use to fund “enhancement” teachers — art, music, physical education. Before House Bill 13, the restrictions would have gone into full effect next year. Now they will go into full effect in 2018-19. 

“We’re just kicking that down the road,” Jackson said 

Some districts are concerned that the state will not give them dedicated money for the enhancement teachers in 2018-19. The budget does not provide it. At a press conference on the budget earlier in the week, lawmakers said that the budget had language about the state’s intent to use data from school districts to figure out the enhancement teacher need across North Carolina and come up with an allotment specifically to fund those teachers in 2018-19. However, staff from the office of Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, senior chair of the House appropriations committee, said that provision is not actually in the final budget compromise. It was in the original Senate budget proposal. 

Jackson criticized not only specific positions of the budget but also the budget process, saying that Democrats had only a very short amount of time to consider the proposal. He also said that a lot of new things were added other than what was in the House or Senate proposals.

Under legislative rules, the additions meant the compromise should have gone to a committee, Jackson said. He said that at very least, the House Republicans who gave an overview of the compromise bill could have done a better job of highlighting what has been added since the original proposals went through their respective chambers. 

“It’s a lot of new things and I wish the speakers before me had taken the time to talk about what was new,” he said. 

Speaking on the experience of reading the budget compromise since it became available to Democrats, Jackson said: “It’s been right painful.” 

Dollar said there are many things to commend in the budget, including a nearly 10 percent average teacher salary increase over two years, more than 3,500 additional seats to NC Pre-K and the return of the Teaching Fellows Program, a program which provides college scholarships to students who promise to teach in science, technology, engineering, math, or special education in state public schools.

House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said that the budget is something that everybody should be proud of, but admitted he has doubts about some provisions. 

“There are thing about this budget I don’t like,” he said. “Nobody is going to be 100 percent happy with anything.” 

The Senate also gave its final approval to the budget today. The House meets again tomorrow at 1 p.m. where it is expected to cast a final vote.  

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.