Raleigh, N.C. — The state budget is now one vote away from passage in the General Assembly.
The Senate voted 39-11 Wednesday afternoon to give final approval to the $23 billion budget deal worked out as a compromise between House and Senate leaders. The vote came shortly after House lawmakers voted 77-40 to tentatively approve the budget, but not before Democrats heaped some scorching criticism on Republican leaders.
A final House vote was expected Thursday afternoon. The spending plan would then go to Gov. Roy Cooper, who has openly criticized it.
The 983-page budget document, released just before midnight Tuesday, was available to the public for just 17 hours before the Senate first voted on it Tuesday and for just 37 hours before the House began its debate Wednesday afternoon.
"This budget is pro-growth. We have seen the results of more jobs and rising incomes and rising revenues to the state," said Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, the House's chief budget writer. "We believe we’ve invested that wisely and been able to return a portion of that to our taxpayers. We need to keep on that path."
Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, touted the tax cuts, noting that the increase in the standard deduction would take 90,000 low-income earners off the tax rolls entirely.
"To say that we are funding the state on the backs of the poorest taxpayers is at best misleading," Brawley said.
But House Minority Leader Darren Jackson said the tax cuts in the budget will benefit the rich much more than the poor. He said Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton would get a $59,000 tax cut on his $25 million salary, while a cashier making $8 an hour – already too little to owe state taxes – would get no help.
"She gets nothing under this tax plan, not a single dime," Jackson, D-Wake, said. "She could have used a child care tax credit, but there’s not one in here."
Jackson took House and Senate leaders to task, rattling off a few of the $79 million worth of special projects and programs and grants in the budget for the districts of powerful lawmakers, including a downtown revitalization grant for an unincorporated area.
"If you aren’t even a town, how do you have a downtown area that needs revitalization?" Jackson asked.
"Of all the things I thought you would emulate from Democrats, I never thought it would be pork-barrel spending," he said to conservative budget writers. "You’re the Golden State Warriors of pork – almost legendary, undefeated. I didn’t think you had it in you.
"It's a ham biscuit with cheese," he added. "You can feel your arteries hardening."
Rep. Robert Reives, D-Lee, called a $10 million cut to the Department of Justice budget "insane," noting that no Republican member stood up to explain why the last-minute provision was necessary.
"I hope it's not for the reasons it appears to be," Reives said, referring to the fact that Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein oversees the department. "We cannot go in and tear things up that have been around for 100 years, 200 years, just because we don't like the people who are running it."
Cutting half the attorneys from the Attorney General's Office, Reives argued, would harm everyone in the state, Democrat or Republican, for whom those attorneys work to keep criminals behind bars and stop consumer fraud.
"Don't take the people we depend on every day," Reives pleaded. "We've got to be better than that."
"Why are we taking money away from the UNC School of Law? Because a man used his First Amendment right to criticize us?" asked Rep. Billy Richardson, D-Cumberland, referring to law professor Gene Nichol. "That’s not us. That’s not who we are."
Rep. Joe John, D-Wake, a former Court of Appeals judge who also worked in Legal Aid, cautioned that the bill "essentially defunds Legal Aid in this state" and bans its use in civil cases such as foreclosures, leaving low-income people without assistance.
"Do not deny poor people justice in their lawsuits," John said, quoting the book of Exodus.
Rep. Deb Butler, D-New Hanover, called the GenX contamination in the Cape Fear River a "public health emergency" and accused Republican budget writers of "grossly poor judgment" and "bad, bad policy" for further cutting the Department of Environmental Quality, which monitors water pollution and issues permits to industry.
"Nothing in our budget will keep [DEQ] from doing their job keeping our water safe in this state," countered Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, adding that the House had negotiated the $1 million in management cuts to DEQ down from $4.5 million in the Senate budget.
Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, conceded there were things in the final deal he would like to change, but he objected to Democrats' repeated references to pork-barrel spending.
"My head’s almost spinning at the hypocrisy. They’re just shocked – shocked! – that there’s pork-barrel spending," Blust said.
Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, dismissed the Democrats' warnings, reading from a list of similar warnings about previous Republican-penned budgets that were not borne out.
"The proof is in the pudding," Dixon said, "and the pudding's tasted pretty good to the people of North Carolina in our last few budgets."
House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, left the dais to debate on the floor in favor of the budget, decrying the "doom and gloom" of the Democrats' arguments.
"This is a great budget," he said. "This is a budget you can vote for."
Moore said what the Democrats called pork-barrel spending was carefully targeted toward rural areas.
"Rural North Carolina has been the hardest in this state with our economy. It has been the slowest part of the state to recover," he said.
"Some people don't seem to like small projects that help struggling communities," agreed Dollar.
"Am I 100 percent happy with this budget? No, I'm not. There are things in this budget I don't like," Moore said. "But overall, I'm very happy with this budget."