RALEIGH, North Carolina — North Carolina House negotiators made a key budget concession Wednesday following a series of tense exchanges and a walkout by Senate Republicans objecting when school leaders were brought in to bolster the House position on preserving funds for teacher assistants.
The House members agreed to give up on expanding lottery advertising spending to generate nearly $30 million more for education. Senators had opposed the idea in part because it also required the North Carolina Education Lottery to restrict ad content and placement. It had become a key sticking point in the budget talks.
The development came after Senate Republicans left a public negotiation session to protest the House's decision to bring in school superintendents and other educators to speak.
Senators had said Tuesday that only official negotiators could speak. But on Wednesday morning, House members presiding over the first hour of the joint meeting decided to allow such speakers. Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow and the Senate's chief budget negotiator, said senators hadn't agreed to allow it.
"You decided that you were going to be the rule-maker of this committee and the Senate's not going to allow that to happen," Brown told House members, who countered nothing in the rules prevents outside speakers.
Speaking before the Senate's empty seats, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison projected the Senate proposal would eliminate 817 teaching assistants in his school district and require an additional $13.6 million in district spending to ensure that teachers paid for with local dollars also receive the higher pay increases.
Cumberland County Schools Superintendent Frank Till Jr. told House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, that he'd prefer the House proposal over the Senate's: "I'd rather not make draconian cuts and give a smaller raise."
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who backs the House proposal, said he was disappointed that senators refused to listen to educators Wednesday.
'We need to listen to them, not walk out on them," McCrory said after a meeting of the North Carolina Education Cabinet at Shaw University. "It was a wonderful opportunity to hear about what the impact of some of the proposals would have."
Brown told House colleagues later that the Senate would not eliminate teacher assistants if the House would agree to the Senate's teacher salary deal. The original Senate proposal would eliminate funding for more than 7,000 teacher assistants in second and third grades while raising teacher pay on average by more than 11 percent.
House members weren't buying it, saying it would require too many cuts to perform. The House plan retains the assistants but settles for average raises of more than 5 percent.
"Your choices are the best of all worlds," said Rep. Linda Johnson, R-Cabarrus. "We would like to have a best of all worlds too, but that is not possible."
Senators then blasted another budget offer from the House for making no concessions. "To me this is barely worth the ink it took to write this thing," said Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph.
Later chief House budget negotiator Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, told senators that future budget compromise offers would no longer contain the additional $29.6 million generated through lottery ad changes. The House would stop pushing for those changes, too, Dollar said, "in order to help move the process along." The House originally predicted the ad changes would bring another $106 million, but an updated legislative analysis reduced the proceeds dramatically.
"I am relieved that House members have decided not to pursue the expansion of lottery advertising," said the Rev. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, a lottery opponent.
Senators said they would work on a new budget offer.
The tense negotiations had some lawmakers threatening that the General Assembly wouldn't adjourn until Christmas given the slow pace. They also brought levity. By Wednesday afternoon, someone had hung a Christmas wreath on the committee room's podium and holiday lights on some tables.
Associated Press writer Katelyn Ferral contributed to this report.