RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Republican leaders at the Legislature and outside groups remained anxious Tuesday about how outgoing Gov. Beverly Perdue's administration is paying for thousands of additional 4-year-olds to attend academic preschool for free through next summer.
The Department of Health and Human Services has located $20 million for the expansion, which the Democrat Perdue said she was obligated to carry out because of court decisions upholding open enrollment to eligible at-risk children to the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten program. About 1,000 additional children have enrolled in the past few weeks, with another 4,000 projected by January, the department said.
The additional average expense of $542 per month per child is coming from several pots of money within the department, including unused salaries and unexpended funds for foster care services, a public health program and medicine for patients with HIV or AIDS.
Acting department Secretary Al Delia told a legislative oversight committee he's confident that shifting the money won't cut any services in those areas. He said the department would take money elsewhere if problems are found before the fiscal year ends in June.
But GOP committee leaders told Delia it was a bad idea to spend extra funds because the department has faced late-year funding shortfalls in recent years, particularly in Medicaid. During the last fiscal year, the Legislature agreed to a $206 million plan to close a Medicaid funding gap, followed with a last-minute deal to eliminate another $75 million gap.
"I would ask how you can make a determination that you have this additional $20 million to commit?" Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, co-chairman of the Health and Human Services Legislative Oversight Committee, asked Delia. "Are you guaranteeing to the General Assembly you're not going to be coming back to us to resolve cash flow issues at the end of the fiscal year?"
Delia responded: "We have a high degree of confidence that throughout the department we will have excess funds or unspent funds at the end of the year."
Delia is unlikely to remain on the job past early next year as Republican Gov.-elect Pat McCrory takes office and brings in his own Cabinet secretaries.
"The leadership is not going to be in place after January, and there's no way that they can guarantee anything when they are no longer going to be there," said Rob Thompson, executive director of The Covenant with North Carolina's Children. Thompson's organization initially praised Perdue for the expansion last month but backed off because, Thompson said, there are too many deficiencies in other programs for children where money would be depleted.
Delia said foster care services have improved markedly in recent years, and there is no waiting list for people seeking help though the AIDS Drug Assistance Program.
Tuesday's questions ripped open old scabs from 2011 about how the GOP-led Legislature budgeted for Medicaid and also reduced the state's share for N.C. Pre-Kindergarten — previously the More at Four program — by 20 percent.
Perdue's office at the time blamed Republicans for essentially creating shortfalls by overestimating potential Medicaid savings. Republicans accused HHS of hiding off-budget financial liabilities and blamed the federal government for failing to sign off quickly on Medicaid rule changes.
Republicans reworked the pre-K program by setting a 20 percent cap on certain categories of at-risk children who could be served in the program and required most parents to make co-payments. A Wake County judge overturned both provisions. The Court of Appeals upheld the judge's rulings. The state Supreme Court is now deciding whether to consider the case.
"We give our public schools to our children and we don't put up barriers for them to get in," said Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, in criticizing the copay idea. But similar copayments are required by parents seeking separate child care subsidies, said Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, another panel co-chair.
The state was spending $128 million on serving about 25,000 children in N.C. Pre-Kindergarten before Perdue's decision last month to expand enrollment by up to another 6,300 slots this year. Estimates are about 67,000 children statewide may be eligible for the program.