- Associated Press - Saturday, August 2, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina’s General Assembly on Saturday finalized a $21 billion spending plan for education, public health, transportation and other government services.

The state House voted 66-44 for final approval of a budget that raises pay for public school teachers by an average of 7 percent, but trims millions of dollars from programs including public health, childhood development and early education.

Gov. Pat McCrory said he’ll sign the budget into law quickly.

Republican lawmakers who decided what programs get taxpayer money and what won’t claimed success.

Democrats blamed continuing belt-tightening despite the improving economy on the GOP decision last year to cut income and business taxes. Critics said the individual income tax cut estimated at $5.3 billion over five years disproportionately benefits the wealthy and companies.

The plan uses $620 million in savings from the previous year. Tapping that money and some reserve funds combined with cuts and creative accounting helped cover the top priority of legislative leaders and McCrory - raising the pay of public school teachers at a cost of $282 million. Most other state employees will get a $1,000 pay raise and five extra vacation days.

The state Department of Health and Human Services overall was held flat, but areas cut included 3.5 percent from mental health, developmental disabilities and substance abuse services. Two recently opened state homes for veterans in Black Mountain and Kinston would get another $18.3 million to fully operate, bringing their operating funds to $42 million this year.

The spending plan also would:

- Raise the pay of public school teachers by an average of 7 percent at a cost of $282 million.

- Give most other state employees a $1,000 pay raise and five extra vacation days.

- Spend nearly $42 million to reduce class sizes in kindergarten to 18 children per teacher and to 17 students per teacher in first grade, an increase of 760 positions.

- Preserve the jobs of classroom teaching assistants in early grades.

- Eliminate funding for the Teaching Fellows program, which gives college scholarships to students in exchange for working as educators.

- Direct public schools to stock epinephrine injectors, commonly known as EpiPens, to treat someone suffering from an extreme allergic reaction.

- Set up an education endowment fund which can collect donations from corporations and people who want to increase teacher pay.

- Order the State Board of Education to authorize a virtual charter school, a type of online-only school that has faced criticism over lack of academic quality and oversight.

- Restore $11.8 million that lawmakers last year took away to account for lower public school enrollment as about 2,400 students used a new voucher program to move to private or religious schools.

- Provide another $840,000 to expand Opportunity Scholarship Grants, the voucher program for students to attend private or religious schools. The added cash increases funding for the program scheduled to start this academic year to $10.8 million.

- Commit $2 million for a federal initiative at North Carolina State University that President Barack Obama announced during a January visit to Raleigh. The money will support an effort including university and company researchers seeking to invent, design and make new, more efficient semiconductor chips and power devices.

- Move the State Bureau of Investigation and nearly 450 full-time positions out of the state Justice Department.

- Make the SBI an independent agency with its director appointed by the governor for an eight-year term.

- Hire three new State Board of Elections investigators who would check into claims of election or voter fraud.

- Create a second choice in standard license plates in addition to the “First in Flight” tags in distribution for three decades. Vehicle owners could also choose one that says “First in Freedom,” honoring the early demands of North Carolina leaders for American independence in 1775 and 1776.

- Set aside $186 million for Medicaid contingencies. The state spends $3.5 billion annually to treat 1.7 million Medicaid recipients, and the program has had almost annual cost overruns for years.

- Establish a $10 million grant fund to attract films, TV shows and commercials, replacing a tax credit that last year cost the state $61 million.

- Ban individuals or state agencies from use of a drone to conduct surveillance without permission. There are exceptions for media covering news or public events and for police acting in emergencies.

- End North Carolina’s status as one of three states that puts misdemeanor offenders in state prisons and offers county jails $40 a day to house them.

- Close Fountain Correctional Center for Women, a 531-bed minimum-custody prison in Nash County, and North Piedmont Correctional Center for Women, a 136-bed minimum-custody unit in Davidson County.

- Provide $2.8 million for a Burke County facility to house probation violators subject to a mandatory 90-day sentence.

- Start negotiations to trade state land for federally owned property along Oregon Inlet needed to build jetties or other structures needed to keep the passage open for boats.

- Use $3 million to repair the hull of the World War II battleship USS North Carolina in Wilmington, a project that could cost $13 million.

- Help military veterans and their dependents cover tuition at community colleges and University of North Carolina schools with almost $6 million.

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