Raleigh, N.C. — In the course of a seven-hour debate Wednesday, the House budget committee heard scores of proposed amendments to its budget plan. Some, like the provision to shift oversight of the State Bureau of Investigation, were controversial and hotly debated. Many failed. Many others, minor changes, passed with little debate.
But some of the changes the panel approved were substantive ones that will affect conference negotiations with Senate leaders. Many may not emerge in the final budget deal, but they will at least be on the table for debate.
Five bonus days: Near the end of the marathon session, senior budget chairman Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, added five bonus vacation days for state workers in the coming fiscal year. Legislators did the same thing in the current fiscal year. The days expire June 30, 2015, and don't count toward retirement. The amendment passed in less than a minute with no debate.
Family courts: Rep. Allen McNeil, R-Randolph, ran a successful amendment to restore some funding to the state's family courts. The program operates in only 13 counties, and House budget writers had zeroed out the program's $2.9 million in funding. McNeil's amendment took $1.9 million from the Administrative Office of the Courts, already facing steep cuts, to keep the program alive.
Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, head House budget writer for Justice and Public Safety, spoke against the move. He said the program is a "boutique" court that most counties manage without, while keeping the money in AOC would benefit the entire state.
"AOC is being treated like a rented mule," Daughtry said.
But other Republicans spoke out in favor of restoring the funding. Rep. John Szoka, R-Cumberland, said family courts help areas with large transient populations, including his, because they speed the processing of child custody and other family law cases.
"If we didn’t have this, we would be seeing three-, four-, five-year delays in some cases. I hate to see it coming out of AOC, but according to the rules, it has to come out of somewhere," Szoka said.
Textbook money: The committee voted to add $11 million in lottery money to the state's textbook fund, plus another $1 million in unused funding for exceptional children.
Teaching Fellows: Another $3 million in funding for exceptional children was headed into the textbook fund but was diverted by Rep. Frank Iler, R-Brunswick, to restart the Teaching Fellows program.
The Senate budget zeroes out the program. The House tried to fund it in 2013, but it wasn't in the final deal struck by the two chambers.
Iler said the $3 million would provide funding for 100 students a year to receive scholarships, which they then agree to pay back by teaching for four years.
"We want our best and brightest to go into teaching," he said. "I believe we need to stand up for the House and stand up for our position, put it in and see what happens."
Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, was on the 2013 conference committee.
"We had to choose between Teaching Fellows and Teach for America," McGrady said, referring to another teacher recruitment program favored by Senate leaders. "I have a suspicion after conference we’re going to be right back where we were before. We don’t have a lot of funding here. Should we be funding both these programs that do essentially the same thing?"
But other Republicans argued for the change. Rep. Bryan Holloway, R-Stokes, said Teaching Fellows "does serve rural counties more. Teach for America, they don’t stay. After two or three years, they leave and go somewhere else and make more money. Teaching Fellows, they end up staying for 30 years."
Historic rehabilitation tax credit: The Senate budget ended the state's tax credits for the restoration of historic buildings. An amendment sponsored by Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union, put it back into the House version.
Some Republicans spoke against the amendment, saying the sunset of the credit is part of the tax reform package passed in 2013. But many others, especially rural Republicans from eastern North Carolina, supported the credit's restoration. Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Carteret, talked about the role the credit has played in preserving historic buildings in New Bern.
Rep. Steve Ross, R-Alamance, said the credit is especially important to areas where deserted textile mills and factories would otherwise fall into dilapidated disrepair.
"We need some incentive for them to be revitalized," Ross said.
"We would be the only state in the Southeast without this credit," said Rep. Susan Martin, R-Wilson, "We need to keep looking at this piece."
The amendment, which makes some changes in qualifications for the credit, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Gov. Pat McCrory has been pushing for the tax credit to be restored and hailed the amendment Wednesday evening.
"Historic preservation means jobs and economic development in small towns and large cities throughout North Carolina," McCrory said in a statement.
More amendments are expected Thursday during the House floor debate, scheduled to begin around noon. WRAL.com will carry a live video stream of the proceedings.