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Cooper lays out his final budget proposal as governor


THERESA OPEKA

Carolina Journal


Before the short session began in the General Assembly Wednesday, Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper laid out his recommended budget proposal for the last time as governor. 

A major part of the budget, entitled “Securing North Carolina’s Future,” focuses on education and school funding. Cooper’s proposal would spend over $1 billion on additional funding for public schools. 


Under the plan, starting teacher salaries would rise to more than $47,500, including local and state supplements—the highest in the Southeast. The budget would also reinstate Masters Pay, raise teacher pay by 8.5% plus a $1,500 retention bonus for most teachers, increase salaries for school-based administrators, and invest $34.7 million to expand Read to Achieve to middle school students. 


It would also provide funding for 700 elementary school teaching assistants in grades K-3, $11 million to attract new teachers, and expand the Teaching Fellows program eligibility to more education schools and in more subject areas.


$745 million would be dedicated to subsidizing child care and early education; $217 million would go toward support programs for disadvantaged students, children with disabilities, and students with limited English proficiency; and, $44.6 million to support student mental and physical health by hiring more school counselors, nurses, psychologists, and social workers.

Cooper said the budget also addresses the $13 billion need for new school buildings by recommending that voters approve a $2.5 billion school construction bond on the November 2024 ballot.


In addition, he would put a moratorium on taxpayer-funded private school vouchers and redirect the money to public schools. 


Cooper declared a “State of Emergency” for public education in May 2023, with a red banner across the top of the governor.nc.gov website that would normally be dedicated for true emergencies such as hurricanes. He has been against school choice, including Opportunity Scholarships, which are designed to enable families to choose a private school education for their children. 


A record-breaking 72,000 applications were received for the program this year. 

The North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority, or NCSEAA, announced on March 30 that 13,511 new students in the first award tier have been offered scholarships. Renewal families — those already enrolled in the program — were also offered scholarships.


IN his proposal, Cooper sets aside $200 million for Child Care Stabilization Grants to keep child care centers open and $128.5 million for child care subsidies that will increase reimbursement rates for providers in rural and low-wealth communities.


The budget also includes $197 million to cover the full cost of care for NC Pre-K students and $24.4 million to provide summer programs for students once they complete NC Pre-K and before they enter kindergarten. The budget further reduces childcare costs for North Carolina families by providing a refundable tax credit for child and dependent care.


“This budget is an opportunity to build on our state’s momentum and make up ground in areas like public education, quality child care and clean drinking water, where legislators have fallen short,” Cooper said in a press release. “As the number one state to do business in the country for two years in a row, we have the formula for success in our high-quality public schools, talented workforce and thriving economy. We must make targeted investments strengthening public education, boosting economic development, and protecting our natural resources to secure a bright future for North Carolina.”


His budget allots $251.8 million to guarantee at least a 5% across-the-board salary increase for state employees and non-certified public-school employees and close to $400 million for a retention bonus for all state-funded employees, with most receiving a $1,500 retention bonus.


The budget also gives $195.8 million in funding for the Enhanced Labor Market Adjustment Reserve to give agencies, universities, and community colleges flexibility to address hard-to-retain and hard-to-fill roles.


The budget allocates $40 million for the Moore Manufacturing and Biotech Solutions Center for high-need job training, more than $18.5 million to expand the state’s capacity to produce more healthcare professionals, $49 million in unemployment insurance tax cuts, and $9 million to help small businesses pursue federal funds through One NC.


It establishes a rural youth apprenticeship program based on existing models and invests $5 million in job coaching for people with barriers to employment. The budget also includes $12.8 million in funding for local reentry councils and support services for former prison inmates upon release.


The proposed budget also suggests more spending on manufacturing readiness with investments in the Certified Sites program and a $50 million investment in Radio Island infrastructure improvements.


Cooper’s budget would also establish a $100 million fund to help communities clean their water from pollutants such as Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS). It would also reinstate the Conservation Tax Credit, as well as additional funds for the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund and the North Carolina Land and Water Fund.


Finally, about $20 million in grants would be used to improve draining and reduce flooding with waterway upgrades and increase funding for the Flood Resilience Blueprint. The budget includes just under $5 million for equipment to enhance the North Carolina Forest Service’s capacity to battle wildfires.

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