In budget fight, N.C. House allies with teachers | News
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Thursday, March 17, 2011

In budget fight, N.C. House allies with teachers

Posted by on Thu, Mar 17, 2011 at 8:24 PM

The NCAE's Daily Political Briefing, which publishes for members of the North Carolina Association of Educators, tweeted this about an hour ago:

Great meeting with Speaker Tillis & Rep Holloway - thoughtful & honest conversation. Met w NCAE Char/Meck for nearly 2 hours. #ncaera11

Chances are the state budget came up, and that Speaker Thom Tills, R-Mecklenberg, and Holloway gave some assurances on this issue, from today's Winston-Salem Journal:

The legislature can balance the state budget without laying off a single public school teacher or teaching assistant, state Rep. Bryan Holloway, a Stokes Republican and a key member of the House's education budget team, said Wednesday.

That puts the House squarely on the teacher's "side" in North Carolina, which is where Gov. Bev Perdue placed herself a couple of months ago when she rolled out her budget.

The trick is that House Republicans want to do this without keeping 3/4 of the penny sales tax Perdue wants to continue next year. Avoiding that means finding about $826 million more in cuts than Perdue suggested, and in the education realm it looks like the university system and the early childhood programs More at Four and Smart Start have the targets on them.

Traditionally the state N.C. Senate has been more likely than the House to protect university funding. Democrats are no longer in charge there, so it's hard to predict whether the Republican majority will continue that. Holloway would only confirm that House and Senate budget negotiators haven't reached a consensus yet.

When I asked state Sen. Pete Brunstetter, R-Forsyth and a Senate Appropriations co-chairman, whether the Senate was protecting the university system as it has in the past, he gave one of those really-doesn't-mean-anything-in-print answers that sound a lot like a "yes" ...

"My guess is there probably still is going to be the element of how to tackle the balance," Brunstetter said.

So there's your narrative on the push/pull of House and Senate budget negotiations: Teachers v. Professors, with Democrats on the sidelines calling for a tax extension and Gov. Perdue laying in wait with veto power.

Both chambers seem likely to cut More at Four and Smart Start. Those programs help care for or educate young children in poor families, and potential cuts range from merging their administrations, to cutting them a little, to ending one of them.

Smart Start in particular has come under fire from Civitas, the conservative think-tank that's such a big part of Art Pope's wide-ranging campaign of political manipulation. Civitas and friends helped get a lot of Republicans elected last fall, so they have legislators' ears.

But many of Civitas' complaints have centered on administrative costs for the program. Today, for example, the institute noted that Civitas' state president makes $173,000 a year.

That's more, according to Civitas, than DHHS Secretary Lanier Cansler makes, and Smart Start is just one of many programs funded through his $3.95 billion state department.

Even Democrats have been thinking of merging Smart Start and More at Four. State Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland and a former House education budget writer, said the issue was studied last year and that there's still a "working group" of legislators from both parties on the issue. Glazier said he sees a consolidation coming, but he hasn't "gotten necessarily the sense that leadership" is contemplating massive cuts for the programs, given the importance of early childhood education.

Brunstetter said to expect cuts beyond consolidation, cuts with "significant impact." What those will be, the senator said, hasn't been finalized.

Update: I thought, but wasn't sure earlier, that the NCAE DPB Twitter feed was handled by Brian Lewis, the association's lobbyist / government relations manager. I spoke to Brian a few minutes ago and confirmed that. He said Tillis met with teachers from the Cornelius area for nearly two hours, and that it was "impressive."

Tillis told them "teaching is a core government service, and one he identifies something as a core government service, he's going to work to protect it," Lewis said.

Update 2: Lynn Bonner at The N&O spoke to another House budget writer, state Rep. Mitch Gillespie, and it sounds like the Smart Start / More at Four merger is a go, and only the details remain to work out.

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