Gov. Cooper: Spending proposal part of education ‘catch up’

Published 7:56 pm Wednesday, March 1, 2017

RALEIGH (AP) — It’s time for North Carolina to “catch up” after years of neglect in education spending by GOP lawmakers, the state’s new Democratic governor said Wednesday as he offered his first budget proposal.

Gov. Roy Cooper defended the more than $1.1 billion in additional total spending in his $23.5 billion proposal for the year starting July 1, compared to what Republicans approved in the current budget law.

The budget “shows what you can do if you make the right kind of investments, if you don’t spend time continuing with corporate tax giveaways, continuing tax breaks for the wealthy,” Cooper said at a news conference at Durham Technical Community College. “This is the kind of budget that you can have if you make education (and) people a priority.”

Cooper has blamed former Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican legislators for emphasizing income and corporate tax cuts while education spending remained hamstrung after the Great Recession.

Republicans disagree that their tax plans have hurt education. They contend revenues have continued to grow and help pay for higher teacher pay and education spending.

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, immediately criticized Cooper’s proposal as bloated. It would grow 5.1 percent compared to the current year, which only saw a 2.8 percent increase. With veto-proof majorities in both chambers, Republicans could ignore Cooper’s budget proposal, draw up their own plan and present it to him early this summer.

“His reckless $1 billion spending spree would surely return us to the days of high taxes and multi-billion dollar deficits,” Berger said in a release.

But Cooper called his two-year plan fiscally responsible — setting aside another $312 million in the rainy day reserve fund and locating $115 million more for recovery from Hurricane Matthew and forest fires last fall without raising taxes and fees. He said his proposal offers much for Republicans to like, especially with the public schools.

Cooper said it would help make North Carolina a national leader in key education measurements by 2025. Those include pre-kindergarten enrollment, high school graduation rates and the percentage of adults with higher education degrees.

“These goals really don’t come with party labels,” Cooper said.

His budget would offer average 5 percent raises for public school teachers this fall and in the 2018-19 school year, bringing the average pay to just under $55,000. Raises would range from at least 3 percent to as much as 7 percent depending on experience levels. The Senate, which draws up a budget law first at the Legislative Building this year, already has said it’s committed to hitting a $55,000 average.

Cooper would spend $18 million over two years to eliminate a waiting list so an additional 4,700 at-risk 4-year-olds can attend preschool classes. And Smart Start, an early childhood development program championed by former Gov. Jim Hunt, would get $30 million, marking its first state spending increase in 10 years, Cooper Budget Director Charlie Perusse said.

The governor also proposed using $19 million in lottery money to pay for tuition and fees for young community college students not covered by state or federal financial aid. He would revive a loan forgiveness program for prospective teachers who commit to teaching after graduation in the public schools. Both would begin in fall 2018.

The spending plan also would pay for infrastructure to attract manufacturing plants and expand broadband to rural areas.

Democratic legislators and their allies praised Cooper’s plans. Other items are likely to get a cool reception from the GOP-led legislature, including expanding Medicaid under the federal health care overhaul law. The idea could be moot anyway, should Congress soon repeal that law.

Cooper wants to revive the state tax credit for child care and dependent care expenses and return the state’s film and television incentive program to a more lucrative tax credit. GOP lawmakers eliminated the child care credit earlier this decade. The film incentive was turned into a grant program in 2015.

And Cooper wants to halt the scheduled expansion of a program that helps thousands of K-12 children attend private or religious schools with taxpayer funds. Republicans have championed the Opportunity Scholarship program.