ROCKINGHAM — On state Sen. Gene McLaurin’s scales, the good in North Carolina’s $21 billion budget outweighed the bad.
McLaurin was one of two Senate Democrats to join a Republican supermajority in voting for the spending plan Thursday. The budget boosts teacher pay by an average of 7 percent without laying off teacher assistants, though experienced educators will see smaller raises. It also nudges state workers’ salaries $500 to $1,000 higher.
“I have been writing budgets for 15 years, and I have never seen a perfect budget,” said McLaurin, who worked to balance Rockingham’s books as the city’s mayor. “This certainly wasn’t perfect. I just decided that I couldn’t walk away from a chance to compensate our teachers and other state employees. They deserve an increase in pay.”
The Senate held the first of two votes Thursday afternoon and passed the budget 32-13 before recessing until midnight because legislative rules require votes on two consecutive days. Backed by GOP leaders in both Republican-controlled chambers, the budget is expected to pass the General Assembly and advance to Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk.
House votes are planned Friday and Saturday, and Rep. Ken Goodman, D-Richmond, said he expects to vote against the Appropriations Act of 2014 when the latest iteration of Senate Bill 744 advances to the state House. Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland, said he’s studying the budget and has yet to decide how he’ll vote.
McLaurin, who voted against last year’s budget, said preserving teacher assistant positions ranked among his top priorities. A previous spending plan would have slashed the number of assistant jobs to fund pay hikes for the state’s teachers.
“The teacher assistants have been really important to me,” he said. “I have worked hard since the Senate version came out with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to restore funding for teacher assistants.”
Minutes before the Senate convened at 3 p.m. for a reading and floor debate, McLaurin hadn’t made up his mind. He said he was still studying a budget draft circulated at 8 a.m. and wanted to pore over the details before deciding how he’d vote.
“I try to really do my research and listen to the people I represent before making a decision,” he said. “When you try to make the right decision, you’re not going to please everyone. I’m weighing the pros and cons.”
The aye vote doesn’t signify complete satisfaction with the budget, McLaurin added, but he chose to support the plan in order to thaw years-long wage freezes that have hurt morale and increased teacher turnover.
“There are tough choices we have to make in this budget,” he said. “We have a significant teacher pay crisis in our state. We’re losing too many teachers.”
HOUSE VOTE APPROACHES
Goodman expects to vote against the budget due to concern over the formula used to boost teacher salaries. Instead of across-the-board raises, the plan counts accrued longevity pay that experienced educators already would receive toward their pay hikes.
“I’m sure that I’m going to vote no on the budget,” he said. “I think it’s unfair to experienced teachers, it’s unfair to principals and other support staff in the public schools.”
Goodman said some new teachers could see raises of as much as 18 percent, but seasoned educators whose step increases are counted toward the pay hike could net as little as 2 percent. He said all teachers deserve a significant increase.
“I am not opposed to these newer teachers getting the raise,” he said, “because we need to get caught up and we need to get competitive.”
North Carolina ranks 46th in the nation in teacher pay, and the Houston school district recently held a job fair in Raleigh to lure educators away to Texas with the promise of higher salaries.
Pierce echoed Goodman’s concern over the disparity in raises between new and experienced teachers.
“The newer teachers benefit with better starting pay, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Pierce said, “but the veteran teachers who have been there a long time are really being humiliated.”
Pierce said he’s anticipating emails and phone calls from teachers in his district. Input from constituents and fellow lawmakers’ arguments during a House floor debate are likely to influence his vote.
“I will admit, I’m still studying it,” he said. “I need teachers to reach out to me.”
State employees are in line for a $1,000 raise under the Senate spending plan, but Goodman noted that non-certified school support staff and administrators will receive only $500.
“All other state employees are getting a $1,000 raise,” Goodman said. “I don’t understand why they’re creating different classes. That just does not seem fair to me.”
Goodman said budget writers tapped temporary funding sources and used rosy revenue projections to balance the budget, setting up a likely shortfall that would result in steep cuts next year to make up the difference.
“I just don’t think this budget is based on solid numbers,” Goodman said. “They’re doing a lot of this with smoke and mirrors. They’re using one-time money to fund recurring expenses, and I think next year, we’re going to come back to a big hole in the budget. It’s fiscally unsound.”
Reach Editor Corey Friedman at 910-817-2670 and follow him on Twitter @RCDailyJournal.