- Associated Press - Thursday, May 12, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Large portions of the anticipated House budget bill breezed through several committees Thursday, the result of North Carolina’s improved fiscal picture requiring no major spending cuts and no word yet on what teacher and employee pay increases Republicans will propose.

Budget-writers for public education, health care and transportation approved spending plans with few or no proposed amendments and a lack of major criticism by Democrats. Committees covering public safety and the courts, the environment and an assortment of smaller agencies also cleared the same key legislative hurdle.

The legislature is adjusting the second year of the two-year state government budget approved last September. The full House wants to pass its changes by the end of next week a roughly $22.2 billion plan, or an increase of a little over 2 percent.

Lawmakers have less pressure upon them because of a projected $330 million surplus for the coming year thanks to improved tax collections, which also means legislators can save or spend another $232 million next year. And with Medicaid enrollment and patient service use lower than budget expectations, Medicaid spending next year can be scaled back by $319 million, too.

“I’m happy with the budget,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “Of the budgets I’ve been involved in this is the first one I feel like the ship has sort of been turned and we’re heading in the right direction.”

The fiscal cushion will help House Republicans offer pay raises for state employees and teachers, the details of which will be released early next week.

House GOP leaders have been more inclined than their Senate counterparts and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory to give across-the-board raises to rank-and-file state employees. The Senate, which will pass a competing budget in the coming weeks, and McCrory favor more targeted raises in hard-to-staff or high-demand fields. A final budget compromise ultimately will head to McCrory’s desk.

Many items McCrory requested in his budget proposal two weeks ago got funded mostly or in full. He got more money for tourism marketing and high-priority transportation projects and the entire $30 million he wanted to carry out recommendations of his mental health and substance abuse study commission.

But others were ignored, such as distributing unanticipated North Carolina Education Lottery profits to several new initiatives. Instead, education budget-writers swapped out $57.3 million in tax dollars with the extra lottery proceeds to pay for even more of the salaries of clerical workers, custodians and support staff in the public schools.

House Republicans also want to forego a plan in the two-year budget to hire more first-grade teachers this fall and essentially use $25 million in that savings to hire literacy coaches for the lowest-performing elementary schools. It’s part of a legislative effort to get children reading at grade level by the time they finish third grade.

“It is sort of a trade off,” said Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke, an education budget-writer. “We’re going to use that money but we’re going to use it in a somewhat different way, which will provide more instruction and more teaching.”

The budget committees also agreed to provisions that would:

- stick with the same generous curve used during the past two years in grading the performance of the state’s public schools on an A-to-F scale, rather than going to a less forgiving point system. The House also would reward schools more that improve performance compared to the current system.

- eliminate all tolling on the state’s coastal ferries. Three of the seven ferry routes currently require fees. Senate Republicans have backed keeping tolls in place.

- reduce from 48 to 16 the number of counties where motorists must get annual emissions tests performed on their vehicles. The reduction would still require U.S. government approval.

- set aside $750,000 to improve detection and protection efforts for the Zika virus and other illnesses, as McCrory requested.

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