VacationThere has been a lot of talk in recent years about how the North Carolina General Assembly is starting to look and sound more and more like Congress — especially when it comes to the influence of big dollars from corporate fat cats and plain old, general dysfunction.

Today, we got another persuasive indicator: Legislators announced plans to take an “August recess.” Oh, they may not be calling it that, but this morning’s news that House and Senate leaders plan to pass a FY2015 budget this week, adjourn temporarily and then come back in mid-August to deal with the coal ash crisis that’s been simmering for months — years, really — and then recess again and come back in November after the election signifies a change in how business gets done on Jones Street.

Traditionally, when North Carolina lawmakers conclude the second-year-in-the-biennium “short” session in early summer, they adjourn until the following January. This may not be the best set-up, but it does force lawmakers to wrap up their business and maintain the General Assembly’s status as a “part-time” legislature.

This new development is enough to make a body suspicious as to the motives of those behind it. Read More

Aldona Wos, North Carolina’s embattled Health and Human Services Secretary, was the woman of the hour at a luncheon held Wednesday that included remarks from Gov. Pat McCrory that Wos has been unfairly criticized.

The Greensboro News & Record covered the event sponsored by the Greensboro Partnership, a booster group for city, that honored Wos.  A former Greensboro mayor that spoke at the luncheon referred to it as “an old-fashioned love feast.”

NC HHS Sec. Aldona Wos

NC HHS Sec. Aldona Wos

A Greensboro physician and wealthy Republican fundraiser, Wos has been a lighting rod in the $1-a-year job she took in January 2013 heading the health and human services agency under McCrory.

At the luncheon Wednesday, McCrory came to Wos’ defense.

“She is fighting battles that you would not believe, while I read the Raleigh and Charlotte newspapers that say she’s overpaid at a dollar a year,” McCrory said, according to the News & Record.

She also received “a crystal sculpture depicting a person who is pushing a big ball uphill,” according to the newspaper.

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Here’s a quick look at how the compromise budget released last night affects the courts and justice system.

Funding for the Administrative Office of the Court  The proposed budget calls for a $2.9 million reduction of funding for the AOC, but specifies that positions not be eliminated in any district operating at less than 100 percent of recommended staffing levels per the current workload formula developed by the National Center for State Courts.   It also reduces the appropriation for AOC technology services by $500,000, leaving $15 million remaining there.

These are compromise numbers from previous budget drafts.  The Senate had proposed cutting technology funding to the courts by $3.7 million and the remaining AOC administrative appropriation by an additional $1.5 million. The House had called for a flat $4.95 million cut, without specifying where cuts should be made.

Cuts to Family Courts  In this latest version of the budget, Family Courts are left intact.

The initial House budget gutted Family Courts, eliminating $3 million in funding and 36 positions, a proposal in neither the Senate nor Governor’s budget. Those cuts were later reduced to just Family Court administrators, eliminating $962,910 and 11 positions. No cuts to Family Courts appear in the current proposal.

Legal Aid  The latest version contains no provisions for cutting or eliminating court fees that passed through the state bar to Legal Services, but does eliminate the $670,000 Access to Civil Justice grant. 

The Senate had previously proposed cutting the court fees passed through to Legal Services to the tune of $1.8 million. The text providing for these cuts did not appear in a subsequent  compromise draft of the budget (as of June 13).

Public Defender The appropriation for administrative costs at Indigent Defense Services is cut by $466,380.

Both the House and Senate cut funds for indigent defense administrative costs in previous budget versions — the House by $466,380, the Senate by $233,190 (including the elimination of the Public Defender Administrator).

State Bureau of Investigation/Crime Lab In the current version of the budget, SBI is transferred from Justice to Public Safety, but the Crime Lab stays put.

In an earlier version, the Senate also called for the transfer of the Crime Lab to Public Safety.

Three judge courts  Provisions making  substantive changes to the handling of constitutional challenges to state laws, requiring that all such cases be heard in Wake County by a panel of three judges selected from different parts of the state by the Chief Justice (similar to the process with redistricting challenges) have reappeared in the current budget.  Judgments in those cases will be directly appealable to the Supreme Court.

Those changes appeared in the initial Senate version but not in a later compromise draft of the budget (as of June 13).

For more on the initial Senate budget, read here.

For a further comparison of the Senate and House budgets, read here.

 

Education-budgetLate last night, lawmakers released a final budget deal brokered between the House and Senate that provides pay raises for teachers and a number of other education funding adjustments.

There’s a lot to process in the mammoth document, so let’s just get started with the basics on education, and I promise you — there will be more to come.

Teacher Pay

Lawmakers say they’ve provided an average 7 percent pay increase for teachers in this budget, but there’s widespread dispute over that figure since longevity pay has been wrapped up into the pay raises.

To see a side-by-side comparison of the old and new teacher pay schedules, click here.

Senator Phil Berger called the teacher pay raise the largest in North Carolina’s history, although the folks at ProgressNC fact-checked that claim and found it to be false.

Teacher Assistants

Lawmakers say TAs are “preserved” this year in the budget, but there are a few catches.

Lottery revenues will pay for a share of the funding for teacher assistants, and a portion of TAs will also be funded with non-recurring funds – meaning there will be another fight to keep them next year.

Also mentioned at Tuesday’s press conference– $65 million that was supposed to pay for TAs was moved back into funding for teacher positions. But local superintendents have the “flexibility” to move that money back over and save more TAs.

*However, that figure is not apparent in the budget’s money report. What we do know, however, is that in the certified 2014-15 budget, TAs were slated to cost $477,433,254 — but this latest budget spends $368.3 million.

Finally, while most state employees will get a $1,000 raise, TAs only get a $500 raise, along with public school custodial workers, cafeteria workers and other non-certified and central office personnel.

Higher Education

While lawmakers said on Tuesday they were able to preserve current funding levels for the university system, what actually is in place is a now slightly increased $76 million dollar cut that was in the original two-year budget passed in July 2013, but not in the most recent budget proposals.

This cut comes on top of years of cuts to the university system that have resulted in thousands of lost jobs and eliminated courses.

In 2011, the state’s universities had to cut $80 million, or 3.4 percent of its overall budget. Five hundred classes were eliminated, 3,000 jobs were cut and another 1,500 vacant jobs were eliminated. In the four years prior to 2011, state funding to the university system was slashed by $1.2 billion. Read More

The 2013 tax plan continues to rear its ugly head. The final budget deal released late last night is yet another reminder that the state cannot afford cost of the tax plan that primarily benefits the wealthy and profitable corporations.  If the state could afford those deep revenue cuts, budget writers would not be relying on more federal dollars and lottery revenues to make their budget balanced nor including another round of harmful budget cuts and policy changes to early childhood education, public schools, higher education, and social programs. But, those are the conditions North Carolinians will be facing over the next year as we enter year six of the official economic recovery.

While the budget delivered on its promise to provide an average 7 percent teacher pay raise, that boost in much-needed pay came at the expense of dollars needed to pay for other state priorities—even within the public education budget for programs that serve at-risk students, for example. And unfortunately, it’s just a snapshot of what we should expect to see in future years. Meanwhile, other states are moving full steam ahead and replacing the most damaging cuts made during the aftermath of the recession.

The cost of North Carolina’s personal income tax cuts will be much higher than previously expected, at least $200 million more each year. Read More