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Gannon: 5 things to know about state House budget

RALEIGH – The House finished its budget, so now it’s on to the Senate. The big question is whether the Senate will agree with most of the House’s spending or differ extensively, potentially setting up contentious negotiations. Here are five items in the House budget to help get you up to speed:

Total spending figure

The recently passed House budget would spend $22.2 billion in the 2016-17 fiscal year, the amount agreed upon by House and Senate leaders early in the process. It leaves about $127.4 million in collections unspent. The House spending represents a 2.3 percent increase over the current year. Democrats argued that the bottom-line spending number doesn’t leave enough money to fund the growing state’s needs. Republicans counter that needs are met and that they don’t want to go on a spending binge, even if the state’s finances are better of than they were during the Great Recession.

More money for teachers, state employees, retirees

It’s an election year for members of the General Assembly, so it’s no surprise that the House budget includes average salary increases of 4 percent for teachers and 2 percent raises and $500 bonuses for most rank-and-file state employees. The budget also includes higher pay bumps in areas where good employees are difficult to recruit or retain because of greater pay in the private sector. The House plan also gives 1.6 percent cost-of-living adjustments to retirees. In a newsletter to its members, the State Employees Association of North Carolina thanked Rep. Nelson Dollar of Cary, the House’s top budget writer for “his leadership and hard work in recognizing that state employees and retirees deserve real raises.”

The Senate, in general, has been cooler to the idea of across-the-board raises for state employees and instead favors targeted increases in certain areas. It’s also unclear whether that chamber will support the COLAs for retirees. It will be interesting to see – in this election year – whether the Senate will be willing to fight for lesser salary and COLA increases.

Raises for governor, Council of State

Gov. Pat McCrory is a state employee, too, and he would receive a 2 percent raise under the House budget, taking his salary from $142,265 to $145,110. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, Attorney General Roy Cooper and other Council of State members also would get 2 percent raises, increasing their salaries to $128,190. State legislators would not get raises.

Ferry tolls

The House budget proposes eliminating tolls on the state’s ferries altogether, but Senate transportation leaders haven’t gone along with this idea in the past. The House’s idea is to allow residents of eastern North Carolina who use ferries daily to do so for free. But if it does so, the state would lose considerable revenue from tourists who ride the boats. My guess is the House knows the Senate won’t go along with the idea, but included it in its budget as a bargaining chip during budget negotiations between the chambers.

SBI airplane

The House backed down on a controversial proposal to spend $8.7 million in transportation dollars to buy a new airplane for the State Bureau of Investigation. Instead, the House budget includes language stating that it is the General Assembly’s intent to provide funding for a plane. The SBI is asking the General Assembly for cash to replace a 40-year-old Beechcraft King Air that’s fallen into disrepair and has been used rarely in recent years for safety reasons. The agency has used the plane for criminal apprehension, fugitive extradition, search and rescue, arson and drug investigations, bomb squad deployments and disaster relief. I bet they get their plane.

Patrick Gannon is the editor of The Insider State Government News Service in Raleigh. Reach him at pgannon@ncinsider.com.

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