North Carolina passes $23 billion budget

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Senate Leader Phil Berger challenged Gov. Roy Cooper to sign the budget headed to his desk.

North Carolina Republican legislative leaders challenged Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday to sign the state budget soon heading to his desk - a very unlikely result, given the repeated criticisms of both Cooper and other Democrats.

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House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger, holding a news conference before the final House vote on the two-year spending plan, said it contains middle-class tax cuts, teacher pay raises of nearly 10 percent on average over two years, and money for reserves and Hurricane Matthew relief that Cooper had sought publicly. The Senate already approved the budget agreement Wednesday.

"The people of North Carolina expect their elected officials to keep their word," Berger told reporters. "Governor, if the things you've said and campaigned on are more than just empty promises, you will sign this budget."



The more anticipated result of the final budget, which already cleared the Senate earlier this week, is a Cooper veto. The governor said the two-year spending plan is fiscally irresponsible and fails to provide enough for education and economic development.

But Republicans have more than enough votes to overcome the Democrat's objections: "We will quickly override your veto," Berger said.

The Republican plan would cut taxes, largely in the second year of the bi-annual spending plan, something Democratic leader Darren Jackson (D-Wake Co.) railed against before the House vote.

"Instead of cutting the tax on the wealthy, if you took that money and put it into a standard deduction, you could raise it from $20,000 to $23,000. That would help every teacher, every corrections guard, every state highway patrolman, every fireman. All the people that they parade in front of you every day, that's what would directly help those folks."

The Republican plan would also increase teacher salaries by 9.6 percent on average, but limit permanent raises to the most veteran teachers to $300, not including $385 annual bonuses. And while across-the-board tax rate cuts for all North Carolina residents would provide relief to low- and middle-income teachers, they would enable the highest wage earners and corporations to also keep the most cash.

"They're trying to fool the public, educators, parents, and students about what they're doing for education," said Cooper before the House vote. "And I t shortchanges public schools, community colleges, universities, early childhood, and it's wrong for our state."

"The governor should highly consider vetoing it, and if he does we'll stand behind him," Jackson said. There are "a lot of things that are done in here for petty, partisan reasons."

Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, also expressed disappointment with the GOP budget.

"Gov. Cooper's proposed budget provides a strong blue print for North Carolina and invests significantly more in our public school students and public education," Jewell said. "The budget deal proposed by the legislative majority damages public schools by doubling down on tax cuts for the wealthy and large corporations, siphoning off more money for private school vouchers, and shortchanging many of our educators who work hard every day to ensure our students are successful."

According to legislative leaders, the budget agreement also would:

- spend nearly $700 million more on public education.

- fund more than 3,500 slots for the state prekindergarten program, reducing the state's waiting list by 75 percent.

- locate $10 million for opioid addiction treatment statewide.

- earmark more than $100 million in lottery profits over two years to help economically struggling counties build schools through a matching program.

- reduce spending for the University of North Carolina law school by $500,000, but not by $4 million as in the Senate budget.

The budget bill cuts funding for the office of the governor and Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein, and earmarks tens of millions of dollars for local governments or nonprofit groups that could have been used for statewide needs.

"One of the main jobs of the attorney general's office is to process criminals on appeal," lamented Cooper. "One of the things his office works to do is to keep violent criminals in jail. There will be attorneys that have to be laid off with this budget."

"I would challenge you to find a law enforcement agency in this state that will tell you they can take a 35 percent cut, have two weeks to prepare for it and function at the same capacity," said Rep. Robert Reives, a Democrat from Chatham County.

House Speaker Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, said there are always things in every budget bill that people don't like, but imperfections shouldn't stop people from supporting a budget that moves the state forward.

Moore noted that a provision in the 438-page bill attempts to attract a large manufacturer by expanding economic incentives for a company that invests at least $4 billion and creates at least 5,000 jobs. Moore wouldn't identify the company or describe other details, but he said the provision was worked out with Cooper's Department of Commerce.

"We're on the cusp in this state of potentially landing a major industry in this state," Moore said. "Why in the world would the governor not want to be on board signing this?"

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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