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North Carolina Senate Republicans unveil must-haves in downturn

By GARY D. ROBERTSON, Associated Press

North Carolina’s Senate Republicans unveiled spending priorities on Tuesday for the coming fiscal year, labeling what they consider their must-haves despite plummeting revenues due to the COVID-19  economic downturn.

The chamber’s three leading budget-writers filed nearly 20 bills, with an emphasis on ensuring teachers and workers get paid, K-12 schools and higher education can instruct more students and funding continues for key long-term projects.

The government spending bills largely lack price tags. The three senators — Republicans Harry Brown, Kathy Harrington and Brent Jackson — said in a news release that the amounts won’t be clear until an updated tax collections forecast is released by state economists.

That projection could be released this week, but Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker said Monday that they could have to address a $4 billion shortfall during the next fiscal year. A previous forecast months before the pandemic projected the state would collect $26 billion in revenues next year. Berger has said repeatedly his goal is to avoid layoffs and significant cuts like those required during the Great Recession a decade ago.

One Senate bill would put an additional $623 million in the state’s rainy day reserve fund, which currently holds almost $1.2 billion.

The Senate’s spending priorities will compete with those from the Republican-controlled House and from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper during the annual General Assembly session, which is likely to continue through June.

The budget process ran off the tracks last year when Cooper vetoed the GOP’s two-year spending plan and attempts at compromise sputtered. State government has operated this year under a series of separate “mini-budget” bills that Cooper agreed to sign.

Another measure filed Tuesday would create a reserve to fund salaries for teachers, police officers and other key workers. Other bills would cover enrollment growth in the public schools and the university and community college systems.

Proposals also would provide funds for University of North Carolina system building construction and maintenance; to pay the state’s debt service and retirement contributions; and to ensure Medicaid’s long-delayed switch to managed care takes place before January.

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