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Photo by Shutterstock

“We had a real opportunity to invest in people,” said House Minority Leader Robert Reives, a Chatham County Democrat. “We could have done more than what we’ve done.”

$27.9 billion is, on its face, a lot of money. But for North Carolina’s budget and, especially, for its teachers, it’s a sum that won’t amount to as much as it seems. 

As the General Assembly’s Republican House and Senate leaders announced their proposed budget Tuesday, state employees and others are shaking their heads. The Republicans’ budget provides for an average teacher pay increase of around 4%, while Gov. Roy Cooper had proposed a 7.5% pay raise over two years, among other benefits.

Cooper hasn’t yet commented on the Republicans’ proposal, and final votes on the plan are anticipated Friday. 

“We had a real opportunity to invest in people,” said House Minority Leader Robert Reives, a Chatham County Democrat. “We could have done more than what we’ve done.”

With prices on many goods rising more than 8% and as teachers face mounting demands and a surge in those who are quitting or retiring, many have argued now is the time to invest in a weary workforce. They have plenty of ground to make up: North Carolina ranks 34th in the US for teacher pay, according to the National Education Association.

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“Employers in North Carolina and all around the country are responding to their staff shortages by increasing pay and benefits in order to be competitive in the market,” State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC) executive director Ardis Watkins said in a statement.  “The State of North Carolina has record staff vacancy rates but the legislature is choosing to hoard money rather than give state employees reason to stay. Budgets are always about priorities. This budget shows state employees and retirees that they are not a priority. So why would they stay?”

Ardis is referring to the fact that on top of the state’s already $4 billion surplus, the plan sets aside an additional $1 billion “into a newly created State Inflationary Reserve,” Senate Leader Phil Berger announced, another savings account to prepare for what the Republican said would be an economic downturn. 

Berger said that the savings are necessary because “this budget takes into account the strain of runaway spending from our federal government that is stretching North Carolinians’ budgets thin, and the burden of skyrocketing fuel prices and inflation.”

In fact, part of the reason why North Carolina and other states’ budgets are in good shape is because of the federal American Rescue Plan.  

The early action also decried the millions set aside to fund building and renovation projects in downtown Raleigh or elsewhere. “While the proposed budget did include nominal increases to teacher salaries, those increases fail to keep pace with inflation,” the NC Justice Center said in an emailed statement. “The budget fails to make the investments necessary to have a constitutional education system… while prioritizing multiple ‘pork’ projects.”