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Still no end in sight for NC budget negotiations



RALEIGH, N.C. News – Ahead of a court-ordered deadline to fund a multibillion-dollar plan aimed at improving North Carolina schools, state leaders said Wednesday they’re still negotiating a budget agreement with no clear indication when that will be resolved.

House Democrats and education advocates on Wednesday urged the state to fully fund the Leandro plan, which is part of a long-running court case tied to whether the state is meeting its Constitutional obligation to provide a “sound, basic education.”

Superior Court Judge David Lee has set a hearing for Monday, Oct. 18, for state leaders to show him they are indeed implementing it.

“The only reason a judge had to get involved is because you haven’t been doing it right for the last 30 years,” said Rev. Paul Ford, president of Action4Equity, which is based in Winston-Salem. “We need a Biblical flood of resources to make things right.”

The Leandro plan calls for about $5.6 billion in spending over eight years to pay for a variety of things including: additional slots in NC Pre-K, higher pay for school employees and hiring additional staff.

While Gov. Cooper has called for fully funding the plan in the first two years as part of his budget proposal, Republican legislative leaders have proposed funding a portion of it in the budgets the House and Senate passed earlier this year.

Cooper is having closed-door discussions with the Republicans as they try to reach a compromise on a budget plan. The current fiscal started back on July 1.

Two years ago, state lawmakers never enacted a traditional budget as they disagreed over Medicaid expansion and what to pay teachers.

Cooper, Republican House Speaker Tim Moore and Republican Senate leader Phil Berger aren’t saying specifically what they’re still trying to negotiate.

Speaker Moore rejected the idea that the judge could force the General Assembly to spend a certain amount of money on schools.

“I believe we know best how to fund North Carolina schools by North Carolina legislators who are elected from all around this state,” he said. He added they’re “trying to find a way to make sure where you put those additional resources, you do it. But, you’re not just throwing money. The big thing, of course, is teacher recruitment and training.”

The state has an unprecedented amount of money to spend, as North Carolina currently has about $8 billion in unreserved cash. An economic forecast earlier this year projected the state would also take in about $6.5 billion more than originally anticipated by 2023.

Republicans have proposed tax cuts for individuals and businesses, but it’s unclear specifically how deep those tax cuts are in the agreement they’ve taken to Gov. Cooper to consider.

“This goes beyond politics. This is about meeting our Constitutional obligation,” said Jenice Ramirez, executive director of ISLA NC. “It is not a menu of options. It lays out the roadmap NC must follow to ensure every child has their needs met.”

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Rep. Julie von Haefen (D-Wake), who has been an outspoken supporter of implementing the Leandro plan, said it would be “very difficult” for her to vote in favor of a budget that doesn’t do that.

“We have the funding. We have the money. We have the will,” she said.

It’s unclear what action the judge will take at Monday’s hearing, as it’s unlikely the budget negotiations will be resolved by then.

Republican legislative leaders said Wednesday they were still trying to come up with a counter proposal to send to Gov. Cooper.

House Democratic Leader Rep. Robert Reives, an attorney, said it’s possible the judge could issue a continuance in the case, saying he thinks Republicans and Gov. Cooper are trying to resolve their differences.

“I think there’s a big difference between we’ve still got to come up with the document and we’ve got to make an effort, (versus) we ignored your order,” Reives said.

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