Brittney Burns – Staff Writer

Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) held a joint press conference Monday to announce details of the roughly $23 billion budget and tax relief agreement reached between the state House and Senate.

While an agreement has been reached between the leadership in both the House and Senate, members of both chambers still have to vote on the budget, which would then be sent to Governor Roy Cooper’s desk for final approval with his signature.

“The budget was great for the people in Western North Carolina,” aid House Representative Kevin Corbin. “The compromise budget includes funding for K-12 schools, which will provide $1.4 million over two years. Also, we got two additional positions for the District Attorney’s Office, which will be funded by the state.”

District Attorney Ashley Welch commended the local representatives for their work in helping ease the burden in the 30th District, the largest district in the state.

“I am grateful for the commitment of Representative Kevin Corbin to the people of our District and the efforts of Senator Davis in securing two additional Assistant District Attorneys for the 30th Prosecutorial District,” said Welch. “I am also grateful for the leadership in the General Assembly and specifically for the strong leadership of Speaker Moore. The 30th Prosecutorial District is the largest in the State geographically, and I have made three trips to Raleigh this year to make sure our legislators understand that court studies have demonstrated for years that our workload requires 6 more additional Assistant District Attorneys in our district.  We have been the most understaffed office in the State for far too long.  The addition of two prosecutors to my office during this session is a remarkable accomplishment and a big first step in providing the resources our communities need and deserve.”

The 2017 state budget delivers $530 million in tax relief, with 99 percent of taxpayers either paying less or paying no state personal income taxes at all. The budget proposes to make a series of tax cuts in 2019. It would reduce the personal income tax rate from 5.499 percent to 5.25 percent and raise the standard deduction – the amount on which people pay no income taxes unless they itemize – to $20,000 for married couples filing jointly from $17,500. It would also lower the corporate income tax rate to 2.5 percent from 3 percent.

“This budget continues our philosophy of investing in the legitimate functions of government, limiting the growth of government, enacting business friendly tax and regulatory policies, reducing the income tax burden on North Carolina families, and increasing the rainy day fund,” said Senator Jim Davis.

The 2017 compromise budget increases spending by three percent over last year’s budget and focuses that increase in key areas, like providing nearly $700 million more for public education. The budget continues implementing a plan announced last year to dramatically increase teacher pay – providing teachers an average 3.3 percent raise this year and 9.6 percent raise over two years, while also ensuring they earn far more over the course of their careers.

Under the teacher pay plan, teachers with 17 to 24 years of experience would see some of the biggest raises. Starting teacher pay would remain at $35,000, but teachers at the most experienced levels would get a raise. Teachers with more than 25 years of experience would get an annual bonus of $385, and new teachers with a high grade-point average or test scores would be eligible for a higher starting salary – if they teach in a low-performing school or teach special education, science, technology, math or engineering.

Teacher pay raises would average 9.6 percent over two years, with the goal of having average salaries reach $55,000 by 2020.

Rep. Corbin also touted the compromise budget and the stipulation that would cut the wait list for subsidized pre-kindergarten by 75 percent by adding funding for 3,525 slots.

Along with substantially increasing school principal pay, it also directs more than $180 million in the first year alone toward compensation increases to state employees, providing them a $1,000 across-the-board raise.  And it provides a permanent cost-of-living adjustment to state retirees.

The budget allocates more than $100 million from lottery funds over the biennium for grants to economically struggling, rural counties to assist with critical public school building needs and invests an additional $11 million in textbooks and digital resources and increases funding for children with disabilities.

It provides $100 million in disaster relief assistance to victims of Hurricane Matthew and adds $363 million to the state’s rainy day fund – bringing the savings reserve to its highest total ever at $1.8 billion.

The budget includes $10 million for opioid and substance abuse treatment centers across the state. There is also funding to create a program for local communities to improve public infrastructure to help attract major industrial employers.

The budget includes a $19 million allocation from the sale of the Dorothea Dix property to fund behavioral health beds, something that has drastically impacted the western end of the state, which has little to no access to behavioral health beds.

The budget needs Gov. Cooper’s approval, and on Tuesday, Gov. Cooper deemed the budget proposal “the most fiscally irresponsible budget” he has ever seen.

“It may be the most fiscally irresponsible budget I’ve ever seen,” Cooper said in a press conference Tuesday.

Cooper said the compromise version of the budget released late Monday was worse than either the House or Senate versions of the budget.

“In comparison, their overall spending is higher than the two budgets but teacher pay is lower than the two budgets,” Cooper said. “That is a demonstration of priorities that are out of line.”

“To put it simply, this budget prioritized tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations and short-changes education and economic development,” Cooper said. “It does pick winners and losers – the wealthy win, but the average middle class family loses. Education loses. Economic development loses. People struggling with opioid abuse lose.”

Cooper expressed his disappointed to see significant funding for combating the opioid problem – something on which there seemed to be bipartisan agreement – left out of the version of the budget released this week.

“It actually makes cuts in mental health, which is going to hurt the fight against opioids,” Cooper said. “So I’m deeply concerned about that.”

Last week, the Macon County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution 4-1 to ask the state to more adequately fund mental health, something that wasn’t fully accomplished in the proposed budget, which includes substantial cuts to mental health and opioid treatment over the next two years. Vaya Health who is charged with administering opioid treatment across the state is set to see a significant reduction by $60 million this year and $100 million next year.

The Senate voted 38-11 to pass the budget on Tuesday. The House is set to vote on the budget by the end of the week before sending it to the governor’s desk.