At one point in his press conference, Gov. Roy Cooper grabbed a copy of his 161-page budget booklet from a nearby table, and pointed to its cover for emphasis. “This is a balanced budget” he told a group of reporters, who had gathered at Durham Technical Community College for the announcement. “We did it without raising taxes or fees, cutting services or dipping into special funds.”
Released at 10:30 this morning, the $23.4 billion budget will require more analysis to learn what’s been nipped and tucked to achieve that goal. But Cooper’s first foray into a state budget as governor focuses on education, emblematic of his vision of propelling North Carolina into the top 10 educated states by 2025:
- new programs for continuing education students and community colleges to increase the number of adults with a higher education degree from 38 percent to 55 percent;
- an increase in the number of pre-K slots to eliminate the 4,700-child waiting list;
- financial incentives for new schoolteachers in the form of a $10,000 student loan forgiveness in exchange for a 3–4 year commitment to teaching in North Carolina public schools;
- salary hikes for all state employees, including a 5 percent bump for public school teachers in 2017-18 and another 5 percent in 2018-2019
Including one-time expenditures, the total amount is a 5.1 percent increase over 2016-17, hammered out by the legislature and former Gov. Pat McCrory. Without those non-recurring funds, the budget is 3 percent higher than the previous one.
Cooper is counting on Medicaid expansion to help offset state health care costs in a “cost-neutral manner.” The governor is counting on hospitals to cover the state’s portion, which he said would ultimately save those institutions money it would otherwise spend on providing care for the uninsured.
Another 624,000 North Carolinians would be covered under Medicaid if it were expanded, Cooper said.
North Carolina’s rural and underserved areas would also receive an infusion of funds. About $30 million is included for the redevelopment of “NC Ready” sites. Those are tracts of 50 to 200 acres that could be repurposed for economic development. To attract good-paying manufacturing jobs, Cooper proposes spending $20 million to build infrastructure for new factories.
Although North Carolina’s unemployment rate was 4.9 percent in December, 59 of 100 counties reported rates higher than the statewide average. Eastern North Carolina is particularly hard-hit, with Hyde County at 11.6 percent of eligible adults out of work and Tyrrell County at 10.3 percent.
Low wages, a lack of education and opportunity — in a word, despair — has led to a sharp increase in opioid deaths nationwide, and North Carolina is no exception. In 2015, 735 deaths were attributed to prescription opioid overdoses, more than the number of caused by heroin and cocaine, combined. In 1999, the state reported fewer than 100 such deaths. To combat the state’s problem with opioid abuse, Cooper has requested $12 million next year.
The Department of Environmental Quality would also receive a boost, adding four full-time positions in water resources permitting staff and another four full-time jobs in dam safety. “DEQ has been decimated for the last four years,” Cooper said. “We need to make sure we have the people who can do the job.”
There is also $100 million allocated for hurricane and disaster relief reserve.We are catching up. We can do that without raising taxes but we have to make education a priority. Click To Tweet
Other notable, although easily overlooked line items include $1 million to help keep the state’s military bases open when the next round of closures begins in 2018. Those bases, including Camp Lejeune, Seymour Air Force Base, Pope Field, Cherry Point and Fort Bragg, are key to the economy in their communities.
As part of the “Raise the Age” campaign — it would prohibit 16- and 17- year olds from being tried as adults, regardless of the severity of the crime — Cooper said another juvenile center would need to be built. That could raise concerns among juvenile justice advocates who want to keep these kids out of institutions. Nonetheless, he is requesting $1 million the first fiscal year and $5 million in the second to accommodate those teens into the juvenile justice system.
The 895,000 people in North Carolina without access to high-speed internet could be helped by a $15 million broadband grant program. It would help deliver what’s known as “last mile” and “middle mile” high-speed internet to rural areas, particularly in the mountains. Another $5 million would be used to assess the state’s broadband needs.
The House and Senate are meeting tomorrow at 8:30 a.m. to discuss the governor’s budget before each chamber draws up its own version. (They will meet in Room 643 of the Legislative Office Building, so a live audio stream will be available.) Republican State Sen. Pro Tempore Phil Berger already disapproves. He tweeted that Cooper’s budget contains “reckless spending.”
“We are catching up,” Cooper countered. “We can do that without raising taxes but we have to make education a priority.”