House lawmakers come back for one more budget vote and are likely to wrap up work for the year Friday or Saturday.
House lawmakers come back for one more budget vote and are likely to wrap up work for the year Friday or Saturday. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

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<p>Only one more vote is needed until the state budget goes to the Governor.

By Thomas Goldsmith

The state House on Thursday approved on first reading a $22.4 billion dollars increasing spending for mental health care while raising some teacher salaries,, cutting income taxes and filling North Carolina’s rainy-day fund to a level of $1.58 billion.

The 92-23 tally for approval means that the House needs only one additional vote to send the budget to Gov. Pat McCrory by the end of the fiscal year Friday.

Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Cary) is the House Appropriations Chair. Image courtesy of the NC General Assembly website

“We are seeking excellence in this state and we are also investing in infrastructure,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Wake), a principal budget writer. “We were also to make sure we are shoring up for the future.”

Dollar noted that under recommendations of Gov. Pat McCrory’s mental-health task force, the budget spends $10 million in recurring funding and $10 million in non-recurring funding toward mental health and substance-abuse treatment priorities.

There’s another $20 million, drawn from the state’s sale of the Dorothea Dix property, for the establishment of mental health beds in rural counties and crisis centers for adults and children. In all, Dollar said, the state will be providing an additional 120 to 130 beds for mental-health and substance-abuse treatment

However, Rep. Verla Insko (D-Chapel Hill) noted, mental health programs are still recovering from tens of millions in cuts in the previous budget, made by Republican leadership in connection with dissatisfaction with the performance of local management entities in charge of the programs.

Rep. Joe Sam Queen (D-Waynesville) brought a contentious response from Dollar when he maintained that the undiscussed “elephant” in the budget discussion was North Carolina’s decision not to expand Medicaid spending under the federal Affordable Care Act.

“Is the gentleman aware that we have put $16 million into building health-care infrastructure in Western North Carolina?” Dollar asked after permission to take the floor from Queen.

The state projects represented millions in spending, Queen said, but the decision not to expand Medicaid amounted to billions.

Project CARE, a widely praised respite program for caregivers for people with Alzheimer’s that has had a precarious existence for years, was funded at $550,000, insuring it for another year.

Complaints over taxes, education and raises

In floor discussions, Democrats objected to many provisions of the budget, especially what they called insufficient help for low-income people, state employees and retirees; millions in increases in state vouchers for private K-12 education; and an income tax break which they said primarily benefited wealthy North Carolinians.

House lawmakers come back for one more budget vote and are likely to wrap up work for the year Friday or Saturday. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

In raising the standard deduction to cut taxes, Dollar said, the General Assembly is “also working to help working and middle-class families.”

Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Hillsborough) characterized the budget as subjecting the education system to a “death of a thousand cuts.” He cited cuts to at-risk and after-school programs.

Democrats objected to provisions including the a tax break for yachts, and the uneven nature of the teacher raises.

Said Rep. Henry Michaux, Jr. (D-Durham). “You brag about raising the teacher pay. You still forgot those teachers with the most experience. They’re the ones that are going to suffer from the raises you gave there.”

Tobacco Fund money

As previously noted in this publication, the legislature was helped by $300 million returned from the $62 million in late-session reversions, or money that state departments returned to the General Fund. That allowed some lawmakers to request for earmarked funding, creating 87 such provisions.

Rep. Jimmy Dixon, (R-Warsaw), in detailing the agriculture budget, said that Future Farmers of America would benefit to the tune of $120,000 “to support select local FFA programs.”

This budget provision draws money from the Tobacco Trust Fund, specifically noting that it is made “notwithstanding the provisions” of the law governing those dollars from the federal tobacco settlement.

The funds go to FFA programs in high schools in Guilford, Yancey, Madison and Haywood counties.

But the legislature, once again, declined to fund any teen tobacco cessation programs, despite survey results showing an uptick in teens experimenting with e-cigarettes and other vapor-based nicotine delivery products.

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Thomas Goldsmith

Thomas Goldsmith worked in daily newspapers for 33 years before joining North Carolina Health News. Goldsmith is a native Tar Heel who attended the UNC-Chapel Hill, and worked at newspapers in Tennessee...