North Carolina’s Democratic governor on Wednesday released his state government spending plan that would increase spending by 20% over the next two years, double the increase favored by Republican majorities in the House and Senate.
Governor Roy Cooper says the massive increase in spending is necessary to prepare citizens for future jobs to recruit and retain teachers and government employees. The increase would be funded in part by halting already approved income tax cuts for businesses and the highest wage earners for years to come. There is also an expected revenue surplus of more than $3 billion this year.
“Once in a generation opportunity requires one-time investment,” Cooper said at a news conference. “This budget that we are presenting today is appropriate for the moment.”
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The budget proposed by the governor would give public school teachers an average salary increase of 18% through mid-2025 and increases of more than 8% over two years for other school workers, along with bonuses of $1,000 or $1,500 for all of these workers. Government employees in hard-to-staff positions could also expect additional pay increases. The increases are intended to address 5,000 teacher vacancies and those in the state government, where vacancy rates are nearly double what they were before the pandemic.
Average teacher salaries in North Carolina are currently near the bottom of the southeastern states. Cooper’s proposal would increase base salary for first-year teachers from $37,000 today to $46,000 in the fall of 2024.
While Cooper’s budget proposal will be formally reviewed by lawmakers on Thursday, much of the plan will likely be brushed aside by Republicans who control the General Assembly and have embraced blanket tax cuts as a major policy achievement.
Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger called Cooper’s budget “an irresponsible, unserious proposal from a lame governor who wants future North Carolinans to foot his bill.” Cooper is limited in seeking re-election in 2024.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper speaks at a news conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, on March 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Gary D. Robertson)
“The General Assembly will continue on the fiscally responsible path that has made our state attractive to so many,” House Speaker Tim Moore added in a written statement.
Cooper’s office says his plan is fiscally sound, as $6.8 billion remains earmarked for financial and disaster relief.
Cooper also wants to spend $4.5 billion to fully fund a court-mandated plan to address public school inequities stemming from protracted litigation known as “Leandro,” an early plaintiff. Republican lawmakers disagree on the size and scope of that education plan.
“The main focus of my budget is strengthening education with historic investments from cradle to career,” Cooper said, also citing hundreds of millions of dollars budgeted for daycare centers and parents who use them. “We can and must live up to the constitutional guarantee of quality primary education to create opportunities for all.”
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Since Republicans now have a veto-proof majority in the Senate and are only one seat away from a similar margin in the House, they have more leeway to craft a plan with less spending and potentially more tax cuts, and they don’t have to worry less about a Cooper veto.
House Republicans aim to approve their version of a two-year budget early next month. The Senate then passes its own bill, leading to negotiations to establish a budget before the new fiscal year begins on July 1.
The numbers on the bottom line alone provide a stark contrast.
Republican leaders in the House and Senate announced last week that they had agreed to spend no more than $29.7 billion in the coming fiscal year, which is 6.5% more than the current fiscal year’s budget. The amount would grow to $30.8 billion during fiscal year 2024-25, or an additional 3.75%.
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Cooper’s plan, meanwhile, projects an outlay of nearly $33 billion next year — an 18% increase, followed by $34.2 billion the following year, for an additional 3.9% increase.
As announced last week, the governor’s budget would also set aside $1 billion from the federal government’s sweetener for the state to accept Medicaid expansion to strengthen the state’s mental health services.
Lawmakers are within days of the presentation to Cooper of a bipartisan consensus bill to expand Medicaid to several hundred thousand low-income adults, and to use the additional federal funds for mental health care.
Cooper’s budget proposal would also increase spending on community-based services for people with disabilities, earmark more matching funds needed to access federal grants, and improve workforce development and apprenticeship programs.