5/30/14 N.C. Senate Republicans defend budget choices

N.C. Senate Republicans defend budget choices
The Associated Press, The Times-News 5/30/14  
Reprinted with permission.      

   RALEIGH — N.C. Senate Republicans on Thursday defended their proposed public school funding cuts that would pay for teacher raises and detailed their own plan to change Medicaid, rejecting GOP Gov. Pat McCrory’s reform blueprint.

   The $21.2 billion spending plan for the year beginning July 1 cleared three committees on the way to the first of two required floor votes today.

   While Republicans promoted the budget for offering veteran teachers pay raises above 10 percent, they also had to find the $468 million to fund the raises. They made line-item cuts totaling $390 million, of which more than half came from reducing funds that school districts could otherwise use to hire 7,400 teacher assistants.

   The Department of Public Instruction , which helps administer the schools from Raleigh, also would have to cut expenses by 30 percent, or $15 million.

   “That’s just the way it is. If you want to put teacher raises at the all-time high, which we’re doing, you’ve got to find $470 million somewhere,” Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, told the Senate Appropriations Committee.

   The budget proposal would keep funding for teacher assistants in kindergarten and first grade, but eliminate funds for assistants for second and third-graders. Republicans said districts still have flexibility to pay for assistants in the older students’ classrooms.

   The North Carolina Association of School Administrators estimated the Senate budget could result in the loss of 10,000 school-related jobs, including 1,000 employees in school district offices.

   The pay raises, announced Wednesday before the budget’s release, would give an 11.2 percent average increase for veteran teachers, but only for those who voluntarily give up their tenure. Those who don’t would be left on the current salary schedule with little or no pay raise, Republicans said.

   The North Carolina Association of Educators, which sued successfully to challenge a Republican law last year to phase out tenure protections, blasted the proposal as additional details were released. The proposal would make it risky for NCAE to sue again. The budget says all teachers would be forced onto the lower current pay schedule should the new schedule be challenged and struck down in court.

   “So even if we win in court, the Legislature says teachers lose,” NCAE President Rodney Ellis said.

   Senate Republicans also discussed in the budget their own multiyear path to reorganize the state Medicaid office, rather than embrace McCrory’s proposal to create “accountable care organizations” of doctor and hospital networks that would share in Medicaid savings and overruns.

   Such organizations were projected by 2020 to save Medicaid up to 3 percent of the program’s cost, now at more than $3.6 billion in state funds. Senators have said that’s not good enough to rein in Medicaid costs and avoid shortfalls.

   The Legislature created a Medicaid advisory board to help the state Department of Health and Human Services develop a reform plan that was supposed to provide budget predictability and handle physical and mental health needs.