Raleigh, N.C. — After more than seven hours of debate, the state House voted Wednesday night to give tentative approval to its $20.6 billion budget proposal.
The vote was 77-41, largely along party lines. Two Democrats voted for the Republican-penned plan: Reps. Bill Brisson, D-Bladen, and Ken Waddell, D-Columbus. One Republican voted against it: Rep. Robert Brawley, R-Iredell.
"We came through a fiscal storm like North Carolina had not faced in a generation," said senior budget-writer Nelson Dollar, R-Wake."The waters are beginning to calm, and we are beginning to move forward in a bold new way."
Dollar called the plan "reasonable" and "responsible."
"We fund the things that are most important in this state," he said. "We want to set priorities, and we have done that in this budget."
But Democrats panned the plan as insufficient and misguided, focused on paying for tax cuts at the expense of funding for education, health care and job creation.
"This budget makes it painfully clear that we don’t have the right priorities in mind for North Carolina," said Minority Leader Larry Hall.
"We rank 48th in teacher pay, 46th in education spending. We can’t go much lower. When they say the 'race to the bottom,' we’re going to finish No. 1," said Hall, D-Durham. "Make no mistake. The real victims in this budget are the middle-class families."
Most of Wednesday's debate was taken up by a series of nearly 30 amendments. The most debated of those was an attempt to remove a voucher program from the budget bill.
In a highly unusual move, House Speaker Thom Tillis turned over the dais to Rules Committee Chairman Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, so he could argue against the amendment from the floor.
Supporters of the amendment said the voucher program should be a stand-alone bill, rather than in the budget, but voucher backers argued the proposal had already received plenty of committee debate.
Rep. Kelly Alexander, D-Mecklenburg, said the vouchers aren't generous enough to help truly low-income families move their children into charter or private schools.
"If you don’t have resources, you don’t really have a choice. You got rhetoric. You got a hunting license," Alexander said.
Fellow Democrat and voucher support Rep. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford, challenged Alexander's argument, saying the low-income community he represents has already set up successful charter schools with little funding.
"We may be poor, but we’re not stupid," Brandon retorted, "and we have been able to stretch a dollar further than anybody I know for decades."
Brawley spoke in favor of removing vouchers from the budget, warning that state money could come with regulatory strings attached that would drive schools away from accepting it.
But Tillis countered Brawley in an impassioned plea to keep the voucher funding in the bill.
"I no longer say K-12 education in North Carolina is broken. It’s a great political stump speech, but it’s factually not true," Tillis said. "There’s some great stuff happening, but it’s not happening everywhere.
"The reality is there are parents – mothers, single mothers of small children – who desperately want a choice," he said. "Now is the time."
Lawmakers voted across party lines on both sides of the amendment, but voucher supporters prevailed. The program remains in the budget.
The final House vote on the budget is scheduled for Thursday. Debate will begin at 9 a.m. and is expected to last for several hours.
Once the House gives final approval, the proposal returns to the Senate. At that point, House and Senate will begin work to iron out the substantial differences in their spending plans.