Session Was Short And Sweet
A legislative session that was widely seen as successful came to a close late July 1 after legislators gave final approval to the centerpiece of every Short Session: the state budget.
The Senate and House gaveled out the 10-week Short Session just before midnight, ending the 2015-16 session as the new fiscal year began. It lasted 68 days, compared to the 77 days recent short sessions have averaged, according to media accounts. It was of course far shorter than last year’s marathon session, which lasted into the fall.
Many observers thought the session went well. For example, speaking on the radio program “What Matters in North Carolina,” Donald Bryson of Americans for Prosperity gave it a grade of B-plus.
By many measures, spending was kept under control and taxes were trimmed, yet the legislature was able to increase funding to key areas.
The $22.34 billion spending plan was the largest task to be completed during the Short Session, which the House closed out with a 91-22 vote on the spending measure. The bill saw wide bipartisan support in the General Assembly, and it closely mirrored the governor’s spending plans.
The budget “achieves both chambers’ shared goals with Gov. Pat McCrory of prioritizing teacher pay raises, cutting taxes on the middle class, controlling the growth of government spending and bolstering the state’s savings” according to Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Tom Moore (R-Cleveland).
The total increase in spending is less than 3 percent, which is a relatively small increase compared to recent budgets, giving conservatives a bit more to be happy about than many previous sessions did.
The legislature also added $475 million to the rainy day fund, pushing it to a record 7.5 percent of the budget. The move bolsters the state’s coffers against economic downturn.
The spending plan also includes an increase in the standard income tax deduction to $17,500 over the next two years, reducing the amount of income that is taxable each year and giving a break to most households.
“I am grateful to members of the Senate and House for reaching a compromise that continues the discipline and conservative principles of spending responsibly, taxing sparingly and saving wisely that have turned North Carolina’s fiscal outlook around from multi-billion-dollar deficits to significant budget surpluses,” Berger said. “This budget keeps our promises to support our public schools and raise teacher pay above $50,000, let families and small businesses keep more of their hard-earned money, and control the spiraling costs of college.”
“This budget is the embodiment of what can be accomplished when common sense, conservative ideas are put to work,” Moore said. “We are cutting taxes, reinvesting in the state’s infrastructure and saving money. I am particularly happy that, in addition to teachers, we were able to deliver pay raises to our state employees and provide a one-time payment to our much-deserving state retirees.”
Teachers, employees get raises
With spending relatively under control, and the state’s coffers in good shape thanks to tax and unemployment benefit reforms, lawmakers were able to address several issues that have long roiled the political waters. The budget represents a 2.8 percent spending increase and gives raises to teachers and other state employees as well. The budget boosts average teacher salaries to $50,186 next school year and to nearly $55,000 within three years, moving average teacher pay above $50,000 for the first time in state history.
Under the budget, teachers will get pay raises averaging 4.7 percent, and state employees will get raises averaging 1.5 percent.
The budget also includes a 1.6 percent cost-of-living increase for state retirees.
The budget includes the targeted raises the Senate was seeking, including experienced-based step increases to valuable teachers, assistant principals, principals, State Highway Patrol troopers, clerks and magistrates and correctional officers and provides a 4.5 percent pay raise to assistant district attorneys, public defenders and other judicial branch workers.
Providing salary increases for high-performing employees has been a goal of conservatives in the past and with this budget the state is moving closer to that goal.
In education the budget includes provisions to help make college more affordable by lowering tuition to $1,000 per year for in-state students and $5,000 per year for out-of-state students at Elizabeth City State University, University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Western Carolina University.
The budget also promises there will be no in-state tuition increases for a standard undergraduate college term at all North Carolina public universities as well as freezing student fees at all North Carolina public universities at current levels. The budget also limits future increases to student fees to no more than 3 percent per academic year.
The move to lower state tuition originally included some of the state’s historically black colleges and universities, but pushback from critics who claimed the degrees would be devalued killed that part of the proposal.
Also noteworthy, the budget bolstered Special Education Scholarships an additional $5.8 million to provide grants of up to $4,000 per semester to eligible students. The total appropriation is $10 million, an increase of 137 percent over last year.
The budget also boosted funding Opportunity Scholarships. The spending plan provided $34.8 million for “Opportunity Grant Fund Reserve.” Program funding for 2015-16 was about half that: $17.6 million.
The General Assembly also passed a law to provide North Carolina with a number of new options for turning around failing school districts.
First, HB 1080 authorizes an Achievement School District comprised of Achievement Schools and run by a superintendent who must have a proven record of success. The superintendent would be responsible for drawing up and executing a plan for improving academic results. He or she would have five years to meet those goals and also have the authority to waive State Board of Education regulations and policies. In many ways, ASD schools would be similar to charter schools.
A second way HB1080 can improve failing schools involves Local Education Agencies that have transferred a qualifying school to an ASD.
Many conservatives feel the legislation not perfect, but it does offer some real possibilities to help struggling schools.
Other key issues
After repeated calls for the full repeal of HB 2, Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act,
the only change to come to HB 2 is one requested by Gov. McCrory.
The legislature approved changes to HB 2 that allow for people to bring claims for discrimination in state court and not just federal courts. The caveat is that claims must be made within one year of the alleged offense.
The change passed in an 82-18 vote in the House and a 26-14 vote in the Senate.
Some opponents of HB 2 voted for the measure, though most of them said that a vote for the change did not signal approval for the law itself.
The legislature passed a bill that would ban certain convicted sex offenders who pose a threat to children from going to places where children are, or would be expected to be present.
House Bill 1021 was filed as a stopgap measure to shore up the state’s current law while a court case over the law’s constitutionality is decided.
The Jessica Lunsford Act, passed in 2009, banned sex offenders from a number of places. A federal judge ruled one part of the law was too vague and another section might be overbroad. House Bill 1021 changes the law to address those problems.
“There is nothing more important than keeping our children safe and out of the reach of dangerous sex offenders and child abusers,” Sen. Buck Newton (R-Johnston) said. “If this bill protects even one child, it will be well worth it.”