ROCKINGHAM — On state Sen. Gene McLaurin’s scales, the good in North Carolina’s $21 billion budget outweighed the bad.
McLaurin said he was one of two Senate Democrats to join a Republican supermajority in voting for the spending plan Thursday. The budget boosts teacher pay by an average of 7 percent without laying off teacher assistants, though experienced educators will see smaller raises when elimination of longevity pay is factored in. It also nudges state workers’ salaries $500 to $1,000 higher.
“I have been writing budgets for 15 years, and I have never seen a perfect budget,” said McLaurin, who worked to balance Rockingham’s books as the city’s mayor. “This certainly wasn’t perfect. I just decided that I couldn’t walk away from a chance to compensate our teachers and other state employees.”
The Senate held the first of two votes Thursday afternoon and passed the budget 32-13 before recessing until midnight due to legislative rules requiring votes on two consecutive days. Backed by GOP leaders in both Republican-controlled chambers, the budget is expected to pass the General Assembly and advance to Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk.
House votes are planned Friday and Saturday, and Rep. Ken Goodman, D-Richmond, said he expects to vote against the Appropriations Act of 2014 when the latest iteration of Senate Bill 744 advances to the state House. Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland, said he’s studying the budget and has yet to decide how he’ll vote.
Pierce and Goodman were both skeptical on Wednesday about the promised raises, saying lawmakers have been vague about the source of the extra funding.
McLaurin, who voted against last year’s budget, said preserving teacher assistant positions ranked among his top priorities. On the Senate floor, McLaurin shared an email from a Rockingham teacher willing to take a smaller pay raise if it would mean keeping teacher assistants.
A previous spending plan would have slashed the number of assistant jobs to fund pay hikes for the state’s teachers.
“That’s an area I think needs to be a higher priority in the future,” McLaurin said. “The budget we were looking at was going to cut a lot of teacher assistants and we were able to salvage that.”
The aye vote doesn’t signify complete satisfaction with the budget, McLaurin added with concerns about its long-term viability in light of last year’s tax breaks for the wealthy and for out-of-state corporations.
“I have real concerns about the sustainability of the budget,” he said. “All last year’s budget did was give tax breaks to a certain segment of our society that frankly I didn’t feel needed it as much as the lower-income and small businesses needed it.”
Ultimately, McLaurin chose to support the plan in order to thaw years-long wage freezes that have hurt morale and increased teacher turnover.
“As much as I feel we have a teacher pay crisis in our state and we’re losing teachers to neighboring states, we needed to address that area and the average 7 percent increase certainly is a step in that direction.”