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House leaders say Senate budget proposal unacceptable for schools and elderly

By Lynn Bonner, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

July 12--House budget writers had all the attention to themselves Friday, with Senate leaders gone home for the weekend, a budget committee meeting canceled and negotiations stalled.

House Republicans used the down time to illustrate what they see as the consequences of the state Senate budget proposal that makes deep cuts in funds for teacher assistants and Medicaid eligibility.

A revised $21 billion state budget is nearly two weeks overdue. The state has a spending plan -- the legislature passes a two-year budget in odd-numbered years. But budget delays always add uncertainty to state agencies and local schools, which depend on state money.

Elementary schools have big question marks in their staffing plans, unsure how many teacher assistants they'll have. Community college leaders decided Friday to send out tuition bills, even though the cost of courses isn't yet set, and UNC campuses are planning for cuts, although they're unsure how deep they'll go.

Senate and House Republicans are battling over how big teacher raises should be. The Senate wants 11 percent average raises, and the House wants 6 percent. The latest Senate offer would leave $171 million for the House to spend as it wants, but House members said the consequences of paying for jumbo teacher raises would mean layoffs for up to 6,200 teachers and teacher assistants or more than 30,000 elderly and disabled people losing Medicaid, the government health insurance program.

House Speaker Thom Tillis said his chamber isn't willing to fire thousands of educators. Gov. Pat McCrory on Thursday sided with the House in the budget negotiations, saying he would veto a budget with 11 percent raises because that would mean cuts too severe to other state necessities.

It's possible the legislature could leave the budget largely untouched and go home for the year, Tillis said. But added the legislature needs to, at least, keep its promise to begin raising the minimum teacher salary.

Tillis, McCrory and Senate leader Phil Berger pledged in February to raise minimum pay to $35,000 over two years.

"We have the budget to do that," Tillis said. "I think we're missing an opportunity to even go further if we don't come to a compromise, but I think it's absolutely irresponsible of any member who shared in support of that promise that we made in February to leave Raleigh without having fulfilled that promise."

Sen. Harry Brown, the Senate's chief budget negotiator, said he couldn't vouch for the House scenarios, and was not confident Medicaid could pay all its bills without the additional money legislators have agreed to set aside in a revised budget.

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"I think there will be some concern about Medicaid overruns moving forward," he said.

With the state budget in limbo, N.C. Community College System leaders decided Friday to send tuition bills including a small increase that's in the House version of the budget.

It will be easier to give refunds of 50 cents per credit hour if the budget doesn't raise tuition than have a second round of billing if costs go up, said Jennifer Haygood, the system's chief financial officer.

Most community college classes start on or around Aug. 15, so the system decided that bills needed to go out by the second week of July, she said.

It is routine for legislators to make a lump-sum cut to the UNC budget and tell the system to find the savings. This year, the reductions would be lighter than they have been in the last several, said Charles Perusse, the system's chief operating officer. Still, the campuses need time to plan, he said, and they've been told to consider what will happen in the case of a $27 million reduction, the amount in the House budget.

"The more time you have, the better," he said.

The House has scheduled another budget meeting for Monday and may bring in more speakers to talk about the budget proposals.

Public testimony doesn't help negotiations, Brown said, and he was not sure he'd attend.

Senate Republicans walked out of a negotiation session this week during testimony from school superintendents, a principal and a teacher. Senators said public testimony wasn't allowed under the rules.

"If it's going to be a meeting where they can just bring people in to support of their side, that doesn't move us any closer to trying to find a compromise," Brown said.

Bonner: 919-829-4821; Twitter: @Lynn_Bonner

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(c)2014 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

Visit The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) at www.newsobserver.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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