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N.C. House gives final OK to its budget; talks with Senate next

June 02, 2017 - 6:28 am
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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) The North Carolina House decided to meet in the wee hours to complete work on its version of the state budget.

The chamber convened early Friday just after midnight and quickly approved its two-year government spending plan by a vote of 80-31.

It was the second of two required votes on the Republican proposal. Preliminary approval came late Thursday after several hours of debate. About a dozen Democrats joined nearly all Republicans voting for the plan.

The bill now returns to the Senate, which approved its own plan last month. The GOP-controlled Senate is expected to formally reject the measure next week, setting up a conference committee to eliminate House and Senate differences. They aim to get a final measure to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper later this month.

``This is a great budget. This is a budget that cuts taxes, that invest in critical needs, that gives teachers and state employees a well-deserved pay raise, that puts aside money for rainy days that we all know too often come,'' House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, said at a news conference.

With Republicans firmly in charge of the chamber, approval had been expected despite complaints from Democrats, who said Republicans missed opportunities with the surplus to do more with education, expanding rural broadband access and other services. Still, a dozen Democrats joined nearly all Republicans in voting 82-34 for the plan.

Democrats offered several amendments seeking to insert portions of budget recommendations made by new Gov. Roy Cooper, who has said Republican policies keep favoring the highest wage earners and hurting public schools. The GOP used parliamentary maneuvers to block votes on several of those amendments.

Cooper said in a release after the vote that the budget also ``misses huge opportunities'' in economic development and job training.

``Too many families find themselves squeezed in the middle,'' House Minority Leader Darren Jackson of Wake County said during the debate. ``We should make bold investments to grow our economy, from the middle class out.'' Republicans counter that the budget benefits all citizens.

Even before the second and final House vote, the focus over the budget shifted to negotiations between House and their Republican counterparts in the Senate, which passed a rival plan three weeks ago.

Although GOP leaders agreed months ago to spend $22.9 billion overall in the budget's first year, the two chambers differ on dozens of line items and policy choices, as well the size and scope of employee and teacher raises. The House tax package would cost only about a third of the Senate's $1 billion-plus in tax breaks through mid-2019.

The House and Senate both would raise the standard deductions for income tax filers meaning more income wouldn't be subject to any tax. Although the House otherwise largely gives targeted tax breaks to emerging industries, the Senate cuts corporate and individual income tax rates across the board. The rates are already among the lowest in the country in states that have those taxes.

Moore suggested the Senate plan may go too far right now after years of ``very aggressive'' tax cuts.

``We're open, obviously, to discussing tax cuts ... but we really want to focus on investing in critical needs,'' Moore said. He hoped negotiations between the two chambers would take only a couple of weeks. There's a good chance Cooper will veto the final budget since he's criticized both the House and Senate plans.

The House would offer average 3.3 percent raises to public schoolteachers next year, compared with the Senate's proposal of 3.7 percent.

The House plan focuses on retaining more veteran teachers by offering $5,000 one-time bonuses to teachers with at least 27 years of experience who agreed to remain on the job for at least two years. In contrast, Cooper wants to give permanent raises to all teachers. But one budget-writer said higher permanent salaries for the longest-serving teachers resulting in higher pensions could have negative effects for classrooms.

``We need that experience in the classroom, so we want them to stay,'' said Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, a Wilkes County Republican. ``We don't want to create an incentive for them to immediately walk out that door.''

State economists anticipate a $580 million surplus during this fiscal year, leading to another $1.4 billion in collections for state government for the next two years, before the proposed tax reductions. The House and Senate plans both set aside well over $300 million for the state's reserves, which already sit and nearly $1.5 billion.

The House budget sets aside $365 million for government and university building repairs. The Senate sought $120 million for that purpose.

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