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Tuesday, July 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

North Carolina House pushes private school vouchers, child care aid in budget

House Republicans are moving forward with a budget that is unlikely to become law in an effort to reach compromise with the more fiscally conservative Senate.

RALEIGH, N.C. (CN) — The North Carolina House is moving forward Tuesday with their budget proposal, even after they were unable to privately reach a compromise with the state Senate. 

Their proposed budget would raise entry-level teacher pay, spend millions providing additional funding for the private school voucher program and fund grants to stabilize the child care industry as federal support runs out. 

The General Assembly passed their two-year budget during their long session last fall, but if lawmakers don’t pass an updated budget, the existing budget will be in effect for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins on July 1. 

Last week, Speaker of the House Tim Moore told reporters that the House and Senate have “some significant differences of opinion” and haven’t been able to reach an agreement behind closed doors. The House is anticipated to vote on the bill by Thursday, but the bill isn’t expected to pass in the Senate, even though Republicans hold a majority in both.

Earlier in the session, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger told local newspaper The News & Observer that the Senate isn’t interested in spending on "pork," or funding for earmarks pulled from the state’s reserves. 

House Republicans said they attempted to restrain spending while addressing pressing needs, supporting their budget with funding from two state reserves but not taking from the state’s “rainy day fund." Instead, they are pulling funding from Medicaid and economic development reserves, to cover Medicaid costs and help to bring manufacturing jobs to the state. 

“The savings reserve is untouched and remains at record highs,” said Budget Chair Representative Dean Arp.

House Democratic Leader Robert Reives challenged the idea of moving through the budget process in a week. 

“We have several serious deadlines bearing down on us over the next few weeks. To use this week to pass a budget bill that cannot become law is disrespectful and disingenuous to the people that put us here,” said Reives. “State Senate Leadership has made it clear they are not participating in this theater.”

Reives compared the process to the budget timeline in 2010, the last time the Democrats had the majority, when the process took over a month and included a public hearing. That process "had its flaws," said Reives, but is a “stark contrast” to amending the budget behind closed doors and without public input. 

The House’s proposed budget would spend $570 million in clearing the waitlist for the private school voucher program meant to cover some of the cost of private schools based on income tiers. Republican lawmakers have focused on funding all applicants who applied for educational vouchers, called opportunity scholarships, to reduce the cost of attending private school.

Of those on the waitlist, more than 70% of the families still waiting earn enough they wouldn’t have been eligible for the program before the legislators removed income restrictions. Funding is reserved for the vouchers until 2032, and the proposed budget would increase the appropriation every year, with the cost of the voucher program beginning at $585 million in 2025, and increasing to $675 million in the 2031-32 fiscal year. 

The budget also tackles child care: nearly a third of all child care centers in North Carolina are at risk of closure when federal funding expires at the end of June, which would erase nearly 92,000 child care slots. North Carolina is considered a “child care desert,” and faces extreme shortages of infant-toddler programs, especially in rural areas. 

The House’s budget would allocate $135 million in stabilization grants, far less than Governor Roy Cooper’s recommendation to spend $745 million on child care and early education, with $250 million going to stabilization grants.

“One thing has remained clear: we cannot leave Raleigh without addressing the childcare crisis,” said Representative Donny Lambeth, chair of the House Budget. “The House budget continues 75% of current stabilization grants to keep childcare centers open and parents can remain in the workforce, while giving the state time to develop a more sustainable model for childcare costs.”

The proposal would also increase wages for state employees and teachers, from 3% in the existing budget to 4%. It would also increase the salary for an entry-level teacher to $44,000, and the average teacher would see a 4.4% raise. Teachers with master’s degrees would also receive salary supplements, and retired state employees would receive a 2% cost of living increase. 

The House introduced the budget plan Monday evening. In the House Appropriations committee Tuesday morning, the first time lawmakers heard the proposal, legislators were told they had until the next day at 2 p.m. to propose amendments. Votes on the budget are expected to occur Wednesday and Thursday. 

Follow @SKHaulenbeek
Categories / Education, Government, Politics, Regional

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