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State budget aims to deliver more for less

State budget aims to deliver more for less

Even though the process by which legislative changes to North Carolina’s $23 billion 2018-19 budget were made — shutting out Democrats by limiting floor debate and skipping right to the yea-or-nay vote — that budget now sits on Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk.

The question of whether or not he will sign it into law is mostly moot, considering both the veto-proof Republican majority in the General Assembly and the pride Western North Carolina’s legislative delegation takes in the proposal. 

“We’re doing more while cutting taxes. We’re implementing basic economic principles, and it’s working,” said Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville. “Imagine that.”

Taxpayers, according to Presnell, will keep more of their hard earned money, with a 2.5 percent decrease in the state income tax rate. Almost 99 percent of taxpayers will pay lower or no state income taxes at all in 2019, as the amount of untaxable income — which has tripled since 2011 — rises to $20,000.

The N.C. Justice Center was not pleased with the final budget proposal, calling it a “new low” for the state. As a result of Republicans wanting to bring income tax rates down to zero, Alexandra Sirota, director of the Budget & Tax Center, said every day families would pay the price. 

“They raided federal money intended to extend the reach of programming to young children, and they cut off rural counties with high poverty from tools to revitalize. They failed to put state dollars toward health care as needed, and they earmarked millions for special interests rather than invest in services for all,” she said. “They missed the chance to make genuine progress on investing in each child’s education. This new low is a missed opportunity for our state, made worse by the fact that they kept in place $900 million in new tax cuts that will begin in January 2019 and force more bad choices in the future.”

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On the expenditures side, many items remain the same as in the previous year, but there have been some slight changes relevant not only to people across the state, but also to people across WNC. 

Education spending is up almost $700 million from the previous year, a jump of almost 5 percent. Of that, almost $400 million is appropriated specifically for public instruction. 

Universities, however, saw little increase in funding as a whole. In the western part of the state, budgets for Appalachian State, UNC-Asheville and Western Carolina University remain unchanged at $134.6 million, $38.8 million and $89.7 million, respectively. 

For the fifth consecutive year, teachers will receive a pay raise averaging 6.5 percent, helping to bring lagging compensation better into line with other states. Principals, too, can look forward to a $3,150 pay raise. 

Although only a quarter of the amount proposed by Gov. Cooper in his budget, $35 million will also be included to bolster school safety. The money will be spent on grants to fund school resource officers ($12 million), nurses, counselors and mental health professionals ($10 million) physical security ($3 million) and a computer application that will let students anonymously report threats ($5 million). 

The state’s Department of Health and Human Services is slated for a small spending increase; although appropriations for adult and aging services are flat, substantial increases are slated for child development and early education ($10 million), 

Smart Start family support activities ($3 million), pre-kindergarten ($9 million) and subsidized child care ($4 million). 

Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said the state budget for public education was only a mere 0.6 percent increase over what had already been approved. 

“With the passage of the General Assembly’s budget, this generation of students will miss out on an opportunity to make significant investments in their future. This budget also continues to leave our experienced educators behind with salary increases that may cover little more than a tank of gas each month and shortchanges the lowest paid public school personnel by leaving them off the new minimum salary schedule for state employees,” he said. “Gov. Cooper put forward a budget that values our students, educators, and families while this General Assembly continues to prioritize corporate board rooms over classrooms with massive corporate tax cuts instead of investments in our public schools.”

Women, infants and children will see a slight reduction in appropriations to the WIC program, which will drop from $300.8 million to $296.9 million. 

Justice and public safety spending is also set for a small increase, adding $1 million to the $121 million already earmarked for indigent defense, a 4 percent salary increase for corrections officers and $15 million in security enhancements for state prisons, and a new $44,000 entry-level salary for state troopers who’ll end up making more than $64,000 after six years of service. 

But it’s perhaps the Department of Natural and Economic Resources that takes the most substantial hit — funding for the Department of Labor, which is charged with ensuring the safety and well-being of workers, is flat from the previous year, while the Department of Environmental Quality will lose more than $1 million (about 1.5 percent) and the Wildlife Resources Commission will lose 3.1 percent. 

Other budget items of note include a new base salary for all state employees of $31,200 as well as a 2 percent raise for most other employees, and a small cost of living increase for retirees. 

There’s also another $60 million in disaster relief funds, bringing the state’s total allocation to more than $360 million since the fall, 2016, Hurricane Matthew brought destruction and flooding to vast swaths of the eastern portion of the state. 

Largely seen as a hindrance to economic development, especially in rugged and rural Western North Carolina, the lack of broadband is finally garnering meaningful attention in the General Assembly. 

In one of the most lauded appropriations of the budget, lawmakers will make $10 million in matching grants available to expand broadband access to rural customers. 

The Federal Communications Commission says that more than 640,000 residents of the state don’t have access to broadband; according to the N.C. Office of Broadband Infrastructure, drilling through local granite is far more expensive than the earthmoving required in the Piedmont of on the coastal plain, with costs topping out at $50,000 per mile. 

Companies can submit proposals that are scored based on connection speeds, number of customers served and number of medical or educational facilities that would be able to take advantage of telemedical or telelearning advances that come with higher connection speeds. 

Rep. Mike Clampitt, R-Bryson City, touted the broadband funding grant that will help his region as well as other funding included in the proposed state budget to help the counties he represents. Some of those items include a $15,000 grant for Jackson County to install cameras for the Pinnacle Point running trail; $15,000 for HVAC replacement at the Pigeon Multicultural Community Development Center in Waynesville; $15,000 each for Haywood and Jackson EMS; $10,000 for opioid abuse and drug enforcement in Swain County; $100,000 for Cullowhee Volunteer Fire Department an $15,000 for Bryson City Police Department K9 Transport Unit. 

“I am very grateful to the legislative leadership for allowing me to state the case for funding of certain items in District 119. These items will be carry a short and long term benefit for an area that has been too long neglected and overlooked,” Clampitt said.

As to the criticism Republicans received regarding the budget process, Clampitt said the fact is that more than 90 percent of the decisions in this year’s budget were set in motion by last year’s budget, when a two-year budget was passed covering 2017-19.

“To say there was no input as to what went into the budget is just not honest,” he said. “Democrat and Republican members went to the leadership with requests for certain budget items, and all of them were given proper consideration. Those requests came from various sources, whether it was the county commissioners, city councils, sheriffs, mayors, and other various local government entities… the same as it always does.”

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