FILE - North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper

(The Center Square) – Gov. Roy Cooper's budget proposal for the next biennium includes more than $3 billion for raises and bonuses for educators, school staff and state employees and retirees.

Cooper rolled out his plan Wednesday for the state to spend $27.4 billion in fiscal year 2022 and $28.5 billion in fiscal year 2023. Among the governor's highest priorities are education, COVID-19 recovery, infrastructure and Medicaid expansion.

"With the right priorities, we will not only beat this pandemic but build lasting success for North Carolina," Cooper said. "The most important recommendations today will invest in North Carolina's people so they can learn, get healthier, and get the right kind of training for great jobs."

Cooper's proposal sets aside $2.4 billion over the next two years for raises and bonuses for educators and school employees.

Cooper's plan calls for issuing $2,000 one-time bonuses in May, $1,000 one-time bonuses in October and $1,000 one-time bonuses in October 2022 for all state educators in schools, colleges and universities. Teachers also would get an average salary increase of 10%. Noncertified school employees would be guaranteed $15 an hour and would receive a 7.5% raise. University and community college staff also would get a 7.5% raise over the two years.

Cooper also recommends spending $860 million for pay incentives and raises for the state employees. His proposal includes $1,000 bonuses in October and October 2022 for state workers. Retirees would get 2% more in pension benefits each year and a 2% cost-of-living adjustment. State employees also would receive a 5% salary increase under Cooper's plan.

Cooper's proposal includes an additional $840 million for education over the next two years. According to fiscal analysts, the net base budget appropriation for North Carolina K-12 schools in fiscal year 2021-2022 and fiscal year 2022-2023 is $10 billion a year.

The largest new education expense would be more than $300 million for at-risk students, those with disabilities and low English proficiency students. However, Cooper's plan cuts funding for North Carolina's Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships for low-income students to attend private school.

Mike Long, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said Cooper is limiting equal access to education for 16,000 students at a time when they need it the most.

"This should be a time to work to reduce disparities in educational access because a year of a global pandemic has greater illustrated the need to embrace educational choice," Long said. "Instead of giving parents and families that opportunity to find the best educational option for their children, Gov. Cooper is doubling down on cutting funding for scholarships that provide families those needed resources."

More than 6,000 new applications have been submitted for opportunity scholarships for the 2021-22 school year, Long said. The program provides state-funded tuition assistance of up to $4,200 a year. House Republicans have proposed a bill this session that would expand the program.

Cooper also recommends expanding Medicaid eligibility to more than 600,000 North Carolinians starting Oct. 1. North Carolina will stand to get $5 billion from the federal government through American Rescue Plan Act if they move forward with the policy.

"It creates jobs. It helps save rural hospitals. It makes private health insurance less expensive," Cooper said. "It gives many more people access to mental health and drug treatment."

Republicans have been steadfast in their opposition of Medicaid expansion, which Cooper also proposed in the last biennium budget. The Republican-led General Assembly excluded the provision in the last biennium. Cooper later vetoed the budget. After a failed veto override, the General Assembly had to fund one-time expenses through piecemeal bills.

With Cooper's recommendations in hand, the North Carolina Legislature now must create its state spending plan for the next two fiscal years. Each fiscal year starts July 1 and ends June 30 the following calendar year.

"While there are a number of shared priorities funded in the governor's budget proposal, North Carolina lawmakers will remain vigilant in our responsible financial management of the state and avoid irresponsible decisions that have harmed taxpayers in the past," House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said in a statement.

Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, a co-chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations/Base Budget, said he is concerned about Cooper's recommendation to increase spending and borrow $4.7 billion for capital projects.

"We don't want to return to an era of rollercoaster-style budgets with huge spikes in the boom years followed by huge cuts in the lean years," Jackson said in a statement.

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for four years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.