ROWAN COUNTY — State Senate Republicans praised the lower taxes and education reform included in their $19.4 billion budget unveiled Tuesday, but Gov. Bev Perdue said she will veto it if there isn’t enough support for schools.
In the next fiscal year, the North Carolina Senate proposal spends $129 million more overall than the House and $473 million less than what Perdue proposed. The governor wanted to extend three-quarters of a temporary penny increase on the sales tax, but Republicans plan to let it expire in June.
Sen. Andrew Brock, who represents Rowan and Davie counties, said Monday that legislators are working to make government as efficient as possible, lower state debt and put money back into the economy.
“We’ve had a heart attack, and we’re trying to get off our high-fat diet,” Brock said. “The people who want to keep the one-cent sales tax have a $2.5 million wish list.”
The Senate budget spends more on education than the House version but significantly less than Perdue’s proposal. It would hire 1,100 additional teachers in early grades while eliminating funding for 13,000 teaching assistant positions in those same grades.
Brock said this is an effort to reduce class sizes and direct money where it’s most needed in the classroom.
Perdue’s office called the effort to focus on public school teachers a good first step, but Perdue raised the possibility of a veto in a prepared statement.
“I’ve seen the House budget and I’m reviewing the Senate budget,” she said. “By the time they come together, they need to send me a budget that protects our schools, community colleges and universities. If they pass a budget that undermines our schools and fails to protect the quality of our education system, then I will have no choice but to veto it.”
After the full Senate approves its budget next week, House and Senate members are expected to negotiate differences and present a final plan to Perdue in June for her approval.
Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt said the elimination of funding for more teacher assistants cuts deeper into public schools despite spending $62 million more than the House plan did.
“The people of North Carolina are not going to sell out the public schools for a tax break,” he said.
According to the Associated Press, the Senate budget would eliminate 19,744 positions through state government and the public schools, although it’s unclear how many of those are filled and whether local districts have used the money to hire teachers.
The bill seeks to reduce class sizes in early grades, begins the process for a merit-pay system for teachers and state employees, reduces the rate for all three individual income tax brackets by a quarter-percentage point and gives a tax break to small businesses.
“The pension plan for state employees will be fully funded for the first time in years,” Brock said Monday. “The health care plan is in very good shape. At one time, it was within two weeks of being bankrupt.”
The Senate budget would keep the House’s 20 percent cut to Smart Start, but it also would dissolve the nonprofit that administers it, the North Carolina Partnership for Children.
The early childhood initiative would move to the Division of Childhood Development under the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
Dr. Olson Huff, the partnership’s board chair, said in an online statement that the proposal would effectively kill the initiative and “destroy years of early childhood progress.”
Budget subcommittee co-chairman Sen. Stan Bingham of Denton said the changes would free up administrative costs and help more children, but an amendment to the provision is possible.
The Senate budget also makes $60 million in across-the-board cuts to community providers of services for mental health, developmental disabilities and substance abuse services.