Leandro order’s price tag could drop to $770 million | Beaufort County Now | A new filing in the long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit would lop another $25 million off of the cost of court-ordered education spending.

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    Publisher's Note: This post appears here courtesy of the Carolina Journal. The author of this post is CJ Staff.

    A new filing in the long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit would lop another $25 million off of the cost of court-ordered education spending. Even with the change, advocates still want a court to force the state to spend an additional $770 million on education.

    Meanwhile, legislative leaders filed another document repeating their objection to any court-ordered spending.

    A brief filed Friday by a group known as the "Penn-Intervenors" seeks the $25 million change. The intervenors make the request as Special Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson considers his options.

    The state Supreme Court has charged Robinson with determining how North Carolina's state budget affects another judge's Nov. 10, 2021, order to transfer $1.75 billion from the state treasury to fund education items. Each item is part of a court-ordered Comprehensive Remedial Plan.

    Gov. Roy Cooper signed the budget into law eight days after the $1.75 billion order. A final budget deal secured widespread bipartisan support, with "yes" votes from 145 of the state's 170 legislators.

    Plaintiffs, the Penn-Intervenors, and lawyers from the N.C. Justice Department all had agreed this month that the budget covered more than half of the spending contemplated in the Nov. 10 order. In filings submitted before a Wednesday hearing with Robinson, those parties had agreed that the $1.75 billion figure should be trimmed down to $795 million.

    Now the latest filing suggests that the budget also covers portions of the order dealing with "a real-time early childhood workforce data system" and "child care subsidy improvements." Together, that spending totals $25,541,761.

    Adding in credit for those programs would lower the total price tag of unfunded CRP items to $769,286,196.

    Attorney David Hinojosa of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law represented the Penn-Intervenors during Wednesday's hearing. He and most of the other groups that appeared before Robinson that day urged the judge simply to change the numbers in the spending order while leaving the rest of its details intact.

    Once Robinson acts, the case will head to the N.C. Supreme Court. That court already has agreed to take up constitutional questions in the case.

    On the other side of the argument, attorneys representing state legislative leaders and State Controller Linda Combs want Robinson to change course.

    The legislature's attorneys argue that the state budget mooted the $1.75 billion order entirely. They say Robinson's predecessor, Judge David Lee, issued the unusual spending order only because lawmakers had not finished a budget. Even if Robinson disagrees with that assessment, legislative attorneys argue that the separation-of-powers principle argues against the judge ordering state government spending.

    In his latest brief, legislative attorney Matthew Tilley notes that the newly identified $25 million represents just a portion of the money the state budget sets aside for items in the comprehensive plan.

    Legislative leaders also repeat their argument "that the Court is without power to order the transfer of any unreserved, unappropriated revenue from the General Fund to any State agency, State reserve, or other source," Tilley wrote.

    Combs' attorney takes no position in the spending dispute. The controller wants Robinson to avoid following Lee's lead in the way his spending order was to be carried out. Rather than ordering state lawmakers to spend another $1.75 billion, Lee ordered the controller, state treasurer, and Office of State Budget and Management to take part in transferring money without the legislature's involvement.

    The controller's objection to that portion of Lee's order prompted an appeal to the N.C. Court of Appeals. Appellate judges issued a rare writ of prohibition blocking Lee's order.

    The writ of prohibition prompted an appeal to the state Supreme Court, which agreed to take the case. But the state's highest court asked the trial court to compare the original order to the state budget.

    On the same day the Supreme Court ordered that trial court review, Chief Justice Paul Newby replaced Lee with Robinson.

    Robinson faces a deadline Wednesday to issue his ruling.
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