By Katherine Peralta

Gov. Pat McCrory signed the state budget Thursday at a Union County elementary school, which provided a backdrop for his discussion about teacher pay and other education initiatives the budget will fund.

The Republican governor says the $22.34 billion budget includes an average 4.7 percent pay increase for teachers across the state, meaning that for the first time in state history, average pay will be more than $50,000 a year, including local supplements by counties.

McCrory also touted tax cuts that he said will save the middle class $132 million, tuition reductions at three North Carolina universities and investments in mental health and substance abuse programs.

"The more we can help the middle class and small business, the more we grow business, and that means more revenue for our schools," McCrory said at Shiloh Elementary School.

"It's businesses and individuals that pay taxes that pay our teachers and pay for this infrastructure in our counties, towns and our state."

Public school teachers will receive raises that vary based on experience and are targeted at midcareer teachers after a recent round of raises focused on entry-level teachers.

McCrory acknowledged that North Carolina ranks among the lowest states for teacher pay in the country. But, he said, that will change with the new budget.

"With the announcements we're making today, we're gonna be in the low-30s," McCrory said.

Internet connectivity is another education initiative built into the budget. Currently, just over 60 percent of North Carolina classrooms connect to Wi-Fi, McCrory said. The goal with this budget, he said, is to connect 100 percent of schools by 2018.

The budget provides an income tax cut by raising the standard deduction from $15,500 to $17,500 over two years for a married couple. The standard deduction is the amount on which taxpayers owe no taxes if they don't itemize their returns.

Tuition will drop to $500 per semester for North Carolina residents at Elizabeth City State and Western Carolina universities and UNC Pembroke, with the price set at $2,500 for nonresidents. A new policy across all UNC system schools will guarantee that students pay the same tuition price over at least four years.

The state has a projected surplus of $425 million, McCrory noted. He went on to discuss the advantages of building up a rainy day fund, which he called the "fiscally responsible thing to do." The budget adds $475 million to that fund.

"Sooner or later, the economy is going to take a hit, and we better be ready for it. We're building up a rainy day fund to 7-8 percent of the budget, and I'm proud of that. You don't get political points for that," McCrory said.

After the budget signing, a campaign spokesman for Roy Cooper, the attorney general and Democratic candidate for governor, slammed the event as a "victory lap" on the budget.

"Today's press conference is vintage Pat McCrory: A campaign-style rally with a giant banner paid for with taxpayer money, touting a plan that makes big promises but doesn't actually get the job done," said Ford Porter, the Cooper campaign spokesman.

Cooper has also been blasting what McCrory calls the "Carolina Comeback," which refers to the dramatic drop in unemployment along with the addition of nearly 300,000 jobs -- the centerpiece of McCrory's re-election campaign. Most North Carolinians haven't experienced those benefits, Cooper says.

Among other provisions, the budget provides:

--Teacher raises ranging from 2 percent for teachers with 25 or more years of experience to 8.1 percent for teachers with 14 years of experience.

--Raises of 1.5 percent for other state workers, plus one-time bonuses equal to 0.5 percent of their annual salary and targeted merit raises averaging 1 percent of employee salaries.

--A one-time cost-of-living adjustment of 1.6 percent for retired state employees.

(c)2016 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)