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Republican legislators in North Carolina were counting on at least four House Democrats Tuesday to approve a new $19.7 billion budget proposal to avoid long negotiations with the Democratic governor who is critical of their education spending.
The Senate significantly changed its version released last week of a state government spending plan through mid-2013 as a compromise with House Republicans after negotiating a deal for days. GOP leaders are optimistic they'll attract enough House Democrats to vote for the final product by the end of the week to avoid a potential veto showdown with Gov. Beverly Perdue.
Five House Democrats voted for their chamber's version of the budget four weeks ago, raising hopes among Republicans that they could get at least four of them to support a final budget compromise. Four would be needed to get the three-fifths of the House members necessary to overturn any Perdue veto.
"I'm very confident that they will vote for the budget, and I'm hopeful that the governor will not put anyone in a position to deal with an override," House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, told reporters. "I think she should do the responsible to thing to put this in place."
The bill will be voted on the Senate floor Wednesday and Thursday and returned to the House, which could finalize the measure by Saturday and send it to Perdue, Senate leader Phil Berger said.
The measure also would restore unemployment benefits to more than 40,000 long-term jobless workers. The fate of their benefits has been held up in a tug-of-war between Republicans and Perdue that already led to a separate veto.
The potential deal would spend $300 million more for public schools than the House budget plan, according to the budget document. The new version restores funding for 13,000 teaching assistant positions in grades 1-3 that had been eliminated in an earlier Senate plan, at a cost of $390 million. The House had eliminated funding for assistants in grades 2-3. The bill would still add money to hire more than 1,100 new teachers in those early grades. The University of North Carolina System would receive $100 million more than the House budget proposed.
Perdue said in a statement that the education funding "appears to be a charade" that could lead to thousands of layoffs. The new plan required local school districts to make at their discretion $124 million in additional cuts beyond $305 million in similar reductions over the past two years under Democratic rule at the Legislature.
"There is nothing else left to cut but warm bodies," Perdue told reporters later Tuesday in a conference call. "Don't let them fool you. They are not protecting classrooms."
But one of the five House Democrats, Rep. Bill Owens of Pasquotank County, said he supports the updated budget and expected the other four to join. Owens, a fundraiser for Perdue's re-election campaign, said there are things he doesn't like in the budget but that his Republican colleagues have made changes they promised.
"We haven't digested everything, but basically it looks like `yes,'" said Owens when asked if he would vote for Tuesday's plan. "Everything that we've talked about seems to be there. (Are) there still some tough cuts in the budget? Yes ... but at the end of the day, we've got to have a budget."
Temporary sales and income taxes approved by a Democratic-led Legislature in 2009 to close a budget gap still would expire on time, meaning the state would lose more than $1.3 billion in revenues. A new small-business tax break would remain in place, but a Senate proposal to cut all three individual income tax brackets by a quarter-percentage point would be shelved.
The extra funds to raise overall public education spending to nearly $11 billion in the compromise largely came from reducing reserves, the coming year's payment for public employee pension funds and the income tax cut elimination.
Perdue and other Democrats have been critical of the separate House and Senate plans, particularly on public education. They said the earlier Senate plan would have eliminated more than 20,000 positions throughout state government. The plan keeps in place more than $120 million in funding reductions for clerical and janitorial workers, assistant principals, building administrators and guidance counselors.
Democrats and their allies argue these and other cuts could be preserved by keeping all or part of the temporary sales tax in place.
"This budget is not an improvement for public education," North Carolina Association of Educators lobbyist Brian Lewis said in a statement. "In fact, taken over the two years, it will cost public education teaching jobs, result in even higher class sizes, and do nothing to improve North Carolina's standing in per pupil spending, which is near the bottom nationally."
Tillis said Perdue's "rhetoric" doesn't mesh with the math in the budget. The full education budget -- for public schools, UNC and the community college system -- spends 2.2 percent less than Perdue had offered in her budget proposal in February. Berger said Perdue got what she wanted in having the teaching assistants restored.
"I hope that as she reads through it that she will see the numerous good things in this budget," said Berger, R-Rockingham.
The updated proposal also would:
---- keep the State Bureau of Investigation and its embattled crime laboratory within the Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Roy Cooper.
---- abolish the Health and Wellness Trust Fund, which receives 25 percent of the state's share of the national tobacco settlement, and shift its $32.9 million to a state division to continue smoking and obesity prevention programs, among others.
---- require tolls on all state-operated ferries except for two routes -- between Hatteras and Ocracoke islands and between Knotts Island and mainland Currituck County.
---- delete an earlier provision that would have made it difficult to help the state pay for two new Charlotte passenger rail lines.