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State House budget, which is likely to be kinder to public schools, expected early next week

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union

North Carolina House legislators expect to announce their much-anticipated budget plan either Tuesday or Wednesday of next week, a top Republican budget writer tells Policy Watch.

That plan is expected to phase in across-the-board teacher pay raises, limit the Senate’s extensive cuts to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and restore some of the highly controversial K-12 funding cuts approved just after 3 a.m. last Friday, according to Rep. Craig Horn, the influential Union County Republican who sits as vice chair of the chamber’s budget committee.

“The House committee chairs have been working all this week to develop a budget to put before their committees,” said Horn.

The state lawmaker said that, “with any luck,” he expects a House floor vote on the budget plan a week after its release. Horn adds that he believes the House will allow the budget plan to make its way through committees.

“Let the committees ask questions and participate in the development of the budget,” said Horn. “I’m just one of those people who doesn’t like to go to a meeting that doesn’t have an agenda or a plan.”

If true, that would mark something of a departure from a much-criticized Senate process, in which the chamber’s GOP leadership announced their spending plan around midnight on May 10 and tasked committees with voting on the 358-page bill hours later.

Some lawmakers openly complained the narrow time frame prevented them from knowing the finer points of the budget they were asked to vote on the next day.

House and Senate leadership is said to disagree on the size of the Senate’s preferred $1 billion tax cut plan, although Horn could not provide any details on that potential logjam Thursday.

Yet Horn said he expects one of the largest disagreements between the chambers will be over how to spend the state’s reported $580 million surplus this year. The House Republican said he believes lawmakers in his chamber will be reluctant to use the one-time cash injection to fund any major government expansions requiring recurring costs.

“If this recovery is in fact sustained, then we can start probably next year talking about real growth,” said Horn. “But Republicans by and large, we tend to believe that government is too big. It doesn’t need to get bigger.”

Public education, of course, figures to be another key point of dispute as Senate and House legislators negotiate their budget plans.

Horn, who chairs the House’s education appropriations committee, said his chamber’s biennial budget is likely to roll out across-the-board raises for teachers. The Senate plan, which included an average 3.7 percent raise, was criticized for seeming to slight beginning and veteran teachers.

“I think the House has a broader view with regard to teachers,” said Horn. “We recognize that our most experienced teachers have gotten the least reward.”

And while Horn said he understands why the state’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI) is a frequent target of Republican lawmakers, particularly those in leadership positions in the Senate, Horn said the state’s top public school agency has a big job, suggesting the House isn’t likely to go along with a massive, 25 percent funding cut for the department.

“We ask DPI to do a lot,” said Horn. “… We want new curriculum. This year, we asked them to teach about suicide prevention. We want you to include all these things in the curriculum. Somebody has to develop that curriculum.”

He also expressed confusion about the scope of the Senate funding cuts, which a recently-retired DPI  budget head argued would “totally destroy” work at the agency.

“If we’re going to cut them, what is it we do not want them to do?” said Horn. “We haven’t been able to find an answer. I’m curious as to what the Senate wants DPI to stop doing.”

House legislators are also not likely to use their budget to wade further into the brewing dispute over authority between new Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson and the State Board of Education, suggesting Senate provisions creating new positions for Johnson as well as a new pot of legal funds for the superintendent may not be included.

“The Senate appears to have thrown themselves into the midst of the state superintendent’s battle with the board,” said Horn. “I don’t think the House is inclined to do that.”

The legislature and the State Board of Education are set for a late June court date to decide the fate of a new state law that jettisons board powers to Johnson.

Horn added that he expects the House will restore much of the K-12 funding slashed in a dramatic, 3 a.m. amendment by Republican budget leaders in the Senate on Friday, a vote that singled out education funding in Democratic districts and Democratic-led projects in order to bankroll a pilot project combating the state’s opioid epidemic.

Some said that vote—which diverted funds intended for two early college high schools, a summer science, math and technology program benefiting low-income students and a program providing fresh produce in so-called “food deserts”—was little more than partisan payback against Democrats who criticized the Senate budget.

“Partisanship is alive and well,” Horn said Thursday. “It’s been alive and well for more than a decade. It’s not unique to the Republican majority, nor was it unique to the Democratic majority. I think it’s much  more exacerbated today. We have much more of a tendency to raise our voice and wag our finger these days. I think that’s a shame.”

The Union County Republican said he doesn’t believe Senate budget chiefs understood what the funds were used for before they filed that early morning amendment, which prompted national headlines and even a suggestion from a veteran Democrat this week that race played a part in the cuts, which primarily struck at black Democratic senators in eastern parts of the state.

“I don’t happen to agree that you go fishing for money that you can’t find,” said Horn. “I think you need a more circumspect approach. I don’t think they went looking for education cuts. I think they just got caught.”

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