With the Republican-controlled General Assembly mired in a state budget standoff, state employees and teachers continue to wait on their anticipated raises, which are already two and a half months late.
And They’re tired of waiting.
“Folks are mad and frustrated,” said Christina Spears, president of the Wake County chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators and a former special education teacher in Wake middle and high schools.
She said there’s also disappointment that the General Assembly has continued to act on other legislation this summer, but still not pass a budget.
The only reason that the legislature didn’t have votes this week on a budget to spend about $30 billion in taxpayer money is casinos.
House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger are at odds over legalizing nontribal casinos and other gambling expansions in the budget. With each side saying Tuesday they were ready to vote on the budget — but not the same version — the day ended with the House simply adjourning and going home.
“We’ve been anticipating this for weeks,” Spears said. “We’ve heard early September, mid-September and here we are and it still hasn’t happened. So every time the calls come that they might gavel out, or nothing’s coming today, I think folks just get more frustrated and more frustrated.”
Spears described the temperature as “hot.”
“So I want to say I’m hopeful, but we’ve also waited until October, November, sometimes December, before we got a statewide budget. And things just get hotter and hotter and folks just get more frustrated,” she said.
‘Political theater’ with paychecks
Kim Mackey teaches economics and personal finance at Green Hope High School in Cary.
“One of the things I teach in my classroom is that uncertainty is riskier than at least having an answer. And I think that’s really reflected in how people are looking at this budget situation, because we don’t have answers,” she told The News & Observer on Wednesday after school.
“We don’t know. So you can’t make any plans for any growth because you don’t want to make promises that you can’t keep. That also means that state employees and education staff are on an annual basis really subjected to this political theater with their paychecks, and that’s not helpful for recruiting and retaining employees who are looking for solid, consistent leadership.”
Mackey has been a teacher in Wake County public schools for 17 years. She’s also the parent of two children, one in elementary school and one in middle school.
There’s a major bus driver shortage in the Wake school system. Mackey said her children ride the bus to school, and she picks them up after via carpool. She sees school funding and raises as integral to employee hiring and retention.
“What I want most is to know that the teachers and the staff that my kids are working with on Day 1 are the same folks they’ll be working with on Day 180. But when we constantly have these budget battles over things that are not actually, like, what’s supposed to be prioritized in the budget, we end up with the risk factor that folks will not stay in this volatile environment,” Mackey said.
Who much will raises for state employees be?
Though House and Senate Republicans, who totally control the budget, agreed on the amount of raises for state employees and teachers over the summer, they still won’t say how much they will be. Moore has said repeatedly that they will be retroactive to July 1, and will be “significant” and “meaningful.” But even after the long Tuesday of the budget standoff over casinos, he was still mum on the amount.
In August, State Employees Association of North Carolina lobbyist Suzanne Beasley told the N&O that pay is the top priority for state employees in terms of recruitment and retention. She said it’s not just about the delay, but the amount of money.
SEANC is lobbying for a 10% raise over two years as well as a $5,000 one-time bonus to retain employees.
“Money is the bottom line. Money is the issue when we are trying to hire people, as well as trying to keep people,” she said.
SEANC Executive Director Ardis Watkins told The N&O on Wednesday that the delay means more “unnecessary risk,” as there are significant vacancies.
“The delay just adds another quarter of reverted salary funds to the hundreds of millions of dollars available to give every state agency, university, community college and public school employee in North Carolina a $5,000 retention bonus,” she said. Reverted salary is the extra money the state has because of the vacancies.
“This, along with a 5% raise this and next year, would make a compelling case for state employees to stop leaving in droves before the vacancy crisis results in further potential for injury or loss of life. Every day until this gets done is another day at unnecessary risk for the citizens of North Carolina,” Watkins said.
Budget delays becoming the norm
House Democratic Leader Robert Reives, of Chatham County, criticized Republicans for taking so long on the budget and for having it delayed even longer over casinos.
“Casinos, not casinos or anything like that, that has nothing to do with whether or not a teacher is going to be able to pay her bills. It has nothing to do with the fact that an assistant is going have to find a second job. It has nothing to do with whether a state employee is going to be able to stay on their state job or have to go into the private sector because they can’t get raises,” Reives said.
“Casinos have nothing to do with that. So if you’re serious about taking care of the people in North Carolina, this is easy. We pass a budget.”
A late state budget, and hence raises, is becoming the norm each budget cycle. Like Lucy and Charlie Brown and the proverbial football, hopes can be dashed every time.
In 2019, the budget stalemate between the Republican majority legislature and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper ended up with no teacher raises at all, because there was never a full budget signed into law. Cooper vetoed a separate bill that would have given teachers raises, saying they were too low. The next two-year budget cycle, in 2021, was another standoff between Cooper, Berger and Moore that didn’t resolve until nearly Thanksgiving that year.
Moore told reporters on Wednesday that he and Berger have talked on the phone and planned to meet in person. They are still working out their differences, and if a budget deal is reached by the end of September, that would mean teachers and state employees would get about three months’ worth of raises finally paid out.
But the timing remains to be seen.
“So whether the budget is adopted next week or two weeks later, raises will be effective to July 1, so nobody’s gonna miss out on anything,” Moore said. “They don’t have it right this minute, but they’re going to get it.”
Reporter Kyle Ingram contributed to this story.