Rep. Ray Russell

Ray Russell

RALEIGH – The two-year state budget fully passed the N.C. House on Friday, May 3, and will now head to the N.C. Senate, but local Rep. Ray Russell, a Boone Democrat, has elaborated on what he sees is a flawed budget.

House Bill 966 passed its third and final N.C. House vote 61-51, along party lines with one exception.

“Overall, the ‘bad’ in this bill outweighs the ‘good,’” Russell said. “The budget is a ‘smoke and mirrors’ attempt to deceive North Carolinians, and its major theme is tax breaks to large corporations.”

The budget does not include $26 million for locally-identified economic development projects that were highlighted in Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget. That included a $1 million grant to the Appalachian Theatre, $500K for Blowing Rock streetscape project improvements and $11,000 for signage improvements in West Jefferson.

Russell highlighted two aspects of the bill he saw as positives, including funding the “Raise the Age” judicial mandate, which no longer automatically charges 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in North Carolina.

Funding for Raise the Age will equal just under $70 million in the next two years, which will go into administrative support, transportation, juvenile detention center capacity, juvenile crime prevention councils, counselors and more, according to the House Committee Report.

Russell also highlights the increased standards and pay for early childhood educators.

One of the major negatives for Russell was that Medicaid expansion was not included in the N.C. House version of the budget.

“Medicaid expansion is of particular importance to the financial stability of Appalachian Regional Healthcare System and Ashe Memorial Hospital,” Russell said. “The boards of both hospitals have passed resolutions in favor of Medicaid expansion. Medicaid expansion can be done without any new taxes on North Carolina families with a net zero-dollar impact on the state budget. I supported a motion to send the bill back to committee so Medicaid expansion could be included, but the motion failed.”

Russell said he feels confident Medicaid will be addressed in the coming weeks.

On the teacher raises, Russell said that plugging in the raises on Jan. 1, 2020, roughly halfway through the school calendar, is highly unusual and deceptive.

“Ask a fifth-grader, he/she can calculate that a 4.6 percent raise for half a year is not really a 4.6 percent raise,” Russell said.

Other areas Russell said were failures of the House budget included lack of adequate investment in clean water and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, lack of investment in grants and scholarships to help community college students, lack of community college workforce development program funding and adding more money to the controversial school voucher program, saying it diverts money away from rural school districts and to private urban schools.

According to the budget, state employees will receive a pay raise of 1 percent or $500, whichever is greater, starting Jan. 1, 2020.

Retirees would receive a one-time 1 percent increase, starting Jan. 1, 2020.

The State Employees Association of N.C. called the raises a “slap in the face,” and Russell agreed.

Russell criticizes the $30 million allocated for rural broadband, saying the restrictions on the funding would not benefit Watauga County and couldn’t help Ashe County until July 1, 2020. The reason is that the funding relies on economic distress rankings. According to the 2018 rankings released in November, Watauga County is 88th out of 100 counties in terms of being economically distressed, putting them in Tier 3, the least distressed tier. Ashe County went from Tier 1, the most distressed tier, to Tier 2 in the 2018 rankings.

H966 would include $200,000 in increased funding for the Appalachian Energy Center at Appalachian State University, to be funded in the 2019-20 budget year, plus $66,667 to fund ongoing activities.

Another area that could benefit ASU is $35 million in net appropriations to summer enrollment programs at UNC system institutions. The program would “be utilized to reduce the cost of tuition in summer courses in order to increase facility utilization, student persistence and degree completion rates and reduce time-to-degree.”

Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Blowing Rock), through a spokesperson, was unable to comment on the budget prior to presstime.

If the bill passes the N.C. General Assembly and is vetoed by Cooper, the Democrats in both the state House and Senate might have a chance to get concessions. With a 60 percent threshold needed to override a veto, some bipartisanship would be required as N.C. Republicans lost super majorities in both chambers in the 2018 election.

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