North Carolina Legislature Wrestles With a Half-Billion Dollar Surplus

by | May 10, 2018

By Will Doran

North Carolina's budget writers have a lot on their hands in 2018. Teachers are protesting for higher raises, environmental threats are gaining visibility, and prisons continue to be dangerous and understaffed.

And those are just some of the pressures on state government. So state agencies, lobbyists and special interest groups are already fighting for more taxpayer funding in next year's budget. Debate over that new budget will begin next week, when state legislators return to Raleigh on May 16 for a new session. Ahead of that session, the state's top two lawmakers said Monday they had good news: North Carolina has more than $600 million extra to divvy out.

That includes more than a $350 million surplus for this year's budget, which ends on June 30, plus more than $275 million extra that can be budgeted for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

"We plan on a pay raise for state employees," N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican from Cleveland County, said in a conference call about the budget. "We plan on a pay raise for teachers. We are looking at something for retirees."

But some of those raises were already in a tentative version of next year's budget, so it's unclear whether these surpluses will mean the raises could become even larger.

Even before the surpluses were announced, the average teacher was set to get more than a 6 percent raise next year. Some other positions in state government have also already been targeted for raises, starting this month.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County, said that for teachers in particular, the extra funds are more likely to go toward targeted bonuses rather than an even higher across-the-board raise.

"They're more likely, if we have any of them, to be of the bonus variety for teachers who have specialized situations," Berger said.

But on the other side of the aisle, the top Democrat in the House of Representatives, Wake County's Darren Jackson, said that veteran teachers in particular won't have much to celebrate.

"When is a raise not a raise? When you are a teacher with 26 or more years of experience (usually around 50 years old)," Jackson said in a tweet responding to Moore and Berger's announcement. "Under the agreed upon budget, you get no raise this year and are at your max pay forever."

Both top lawmakers also said the Department of Public Safety could see some extra funding, specifically the Highway Patrol and the state prison system. Last year was abnormally deadly for prison workers, with five employees killed in attacks at Bertie and Pasquotank correctional facilities.

If extra money does get budgeted for prisons, it could be in the form of pay raises, improved security measures or both.

"These folks are in a very dangerous position, and we want to make their jobs as safe as possible," Moore said.

Berger and Moore also told reporters they think the budget surpluses for this year and next year are the result of tax cuts the legislature has passed since Republicans took control in 2011.

"The numbers simply bear out that we were right in cutting those taxes," Moore said, adding that if Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper asks the legislature to undo those cuts or raise taxes in other ways, he won't find much support in the GOP-dominated legislature.

However, Cooper's spokesman, Ford Porter, said Cooper has no plans to call for higher taxes.

"The Governor's budget will invest in strong public schools, closing the health care coverage gap and workforce training for higher-paying jobs, all without raising taxes," Porter said. "We hope legislative Republicans will adopt it instead of continuing massive income tax breaks for corporations and wealthy people."

Over the past days, the governor's office has been making public various budget requests he plans to make, and none has called for higher taxes. Cooper has also been more specific than legislators, at least in terms of spending levels, about what he hopes to see in the new budget.

He has called for an extra $14 million to study and combat the pollution threats posed by GenX and other so-called "emerging contaminants" as well as $60 million for workforce training programs.

Berger said legislative budget writers are paying attention to Cooper's requests and might consider them but that he couldn't promise Cooper will get as much money as he asked for.

"It's one thing to throw numbers out there, but it's another thing to come up with a budget that's actually balanced and will take North Carolina forward," Berger said.

Berger said he and Moore hope budget talks move quickly starting next week. House and Senate budget writers have already agreed on a spending goal of $23.9 billion; now they have to iron out the details.

(c)2018 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)