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In education spending debate, the math is stacked against Perdue

RALEIGH — With the help of five Democrats, legislative Republicans released much of the air from Gov. Beverly Perdue’s balloon.

They didn’t pop it.

Perdue had been beating the drum for weeks that legislative Republicans’ plans to slash public school and public university spending would damage North Carolina in fundamental ways, robbing individuals of opportunity and choking off vitality from the state‘s economy.

Key to the claim was a proposal by Republicans to eliminate teaching assistants in first, second and third grades.

Then a budget deal came together. House and Senate Republicans, along with five House Democrats, had agreed to add about $250 million to the budget’s bottom line.

The teaching assistant jobs, several thousand of them across the 115 school systems in the state, had been restored. Another 1,100 teachers would be hired in the lower grades.

The deal appeared to have the necessary support to overcome a Perdue veto. Republicans have a veto-proof majority in the Senate; they need at least four Democratic votes in the House.

Perdue’s main talking point was gone. Her big stick was no longer so big.

Just a week earlier, the governor seemed to have the advantage. With the threat of a veto, she looked to be able to force concessions on education spending.

To a degree, that implied threat helped force the concessions that were made.

Besides face-to-face negotiations with legislative leaders and the staffs of both sides, Perdue had been working through the five conservative Democrats who voted for the House budget.

Those five — Reps. Bill Owens of Pasquotank County, Jim Crawford of Granville County, Dewey Hill of Columbus County, Bill Brisson of Bladen County and Tim Spear of Washington County — apparently tired when the talks didn’t produce a deal between governor and legislature.

So they made their own.

“I don’t think they’d ever get together any other way,” Crawford told me.

Perdue wanted more money for public education and she wanted it without raiding any state reserves. Legislative Republicans insisted that two-year tax hikes scheduled to expire July 1 do so.

Crawford et al. didn’t believe that Republicans would ever move off their tax-expiration pledge.

Even with the additional money, the budget bill moving through the legislature contains significant cuts to public education. A flexibility cut for local school systems – where they decide whether to get rid of teachers, reduce building maintenance or drop something else – would grow by $124 million. Nonteaching positions at schools would be cut from 5 to 19 percent, depending on the type of job.

Teaching training programs would be eliminated. University of North Carolina system campuses would be forced to cope with a $414 million flexibility cut.

The cuts had Perdue calling for “a miracle on Jones Street,” something probably involving a conversion by those five Democrats. They also left her with a legitimate complaint that the bill would still do harm.

Complaints, though, aren’t math. The math — 68 + 5 — is against her.

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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