Wake budget may mean less for schools
RALEIGH The $21.4 billion spending plan for state government released Tuesday would permit Easley to raise teacher salaries by more than the average 3 percent in the Senate's plan, if state coffers receive more money than officials currently project. Easley, who leaves office in January, said he wants a nearly 7 percent average increase to keep a promise that he and legislative leaders made in 2005 to reach the national average this coming school year. Teachers have received big pay raises the past two years when the state had billion-dollar surpluses. Times are tougher this year, and leaders in both the Senate and the House, which also passed a 3 percent increase in its budget two weeks ago, said there wasn't enough money to go higher. Neither chamber wanted to raise taxes as Easley suggested. Senate leaders said the best they can do for now is give Easley the power to raise salaries if the economy picks up. "We're telling schoolteachers that we care about them and we are concerned about their level of compensation and getting them to the national average is something that we've long wanted to do," said Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, D-Cumberland. "So if things get better, then we'll try to do a little better." The budget legislation easily cleared three Senate committees Tuesday and is expected on the floor Wednesday for the first of two required votes. The bill said that Easley and the Legislature would examine revenue numbers through October and determine if collections for taxes are ahead of projections. Half of any surplus -- up to $200 million -- could be used to reduce the difference between the state average and the national average in teacher pay. Raising teacher salaries by 1 percentage point costs $57 million for a full year. For the fiscal year ending June 30, the state is expected to collect $151 million more than lawmakers had projected. Few people believe the economic picture for the rest of the calendar year will be rosier. "Let's hope that the economy gets better than we think," said Cecil Banks, a lobbyist for the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state's largest teacher lobbying group. The average salary for a teacher with 15 years of experience in North Carolina is $46,319, compared with the national average of $49,520, according to Easley's office. The House didn't have the salary provision in its budget and would have to agree to it in conference committee. Legislative leaders hope to send a compromise budget to Easley for his signature by July 1. Rep. Mickey Michaux, senior co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was skeptical about the teacher pay provision because of the authority it gives Easley. And Michaux said the economy isn't strong enough to generate the additional revenues. "Give me a break. I don't see it happening," said Michaux, D-Durham. The Senate budget, most of which was released Monday in subcommittee meetings, spends $15.5 million more overall than the House does, adding money toward university enrollment and Easley's More at Four preschool initiative. The Senate also would borrow more than $670 million, or $120 million more than the House, for university buildings, four prison additions totaling 1,500 beds and other projects. The borrowing doesn't require statewide voter approval. Senators would spend less on fuel for school buses than the House and would delay or suspend enrollment for two health insurance programs for children in low- and middle-income families. The two chambers also have agreed on approving $50 million in tax cuts or credits, but they have different opinions on who should get the breaks. "We have a lot of work to do," Easley said in a prepared statement. "We hope we can make more progress in conference (committee) after everybody quits fighting over the money we don't have." The Senate and House also would have to work out differences on a budget provision that attempts to limit where the Department of Correction can place convicted sex offenders who are having trouble finding a place to live once they are released. The House version would bar the Department of Correction from using funds to place them temporarily in hotels or motels. But the Senate doesn't specifically prohibit their use.