RALEIGH, N.C. — The state Senate debated for more than three hours Wednesday before providing key approval to a $19.7 billion spending plan for next year.
Senators voted 31-18 along party lines to pass the second reading of the proposed budget. A final vote is expected Thursday, and Republican lawmakers said they hope the plan will make it through the House and reach Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue's desk by the end of the week.
The Republican Senate majority penned a two-year budget designed to attract enough Democrats in the House later this week to turn back a potential veto by Perdue. Before the first of two required votes in the chamber, GOP senators beat back several amendments by Democrats, who complained the measure would devastate public schools and health care for the poor.
Republicans argue that they've tempered the reductions in the public schools and restored funding for teaching assistant jobs and for more teachers in the early grades. They also expect tens of thousands of private-sector jobs from letting temporary taxes expire and offering a small-business tax break.
"I don't want to hear that Republicans don't care. That's not true," said Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph. "This is a very caring budget."
Senate Democrats contend the bill would eliminate more jobs immediately in the public sector. They cite documents from the public schools, University of North Carolina system and community colleges saying the Senate budget would eliminate 13,000 positions in the new fiscal year starting July 1.
"What's been done in this budget to boost the economy will take years, I mean years, to offset the thousands of jobs lost through this process in education," said Sen. Charlie Dannelly, D-Mecklenburg. "We all know that the basic foundation of economic growth is a sound effective educational system ... This budget diminishes all of that."
Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, criticized what he called "Republican math" in which job losses are ignored and only new teaching positions are counted.
"This budget does immense damage to the education system," Stein said.
Sen. Doug Berger, D-Franklin, complained that some cuts would hurt the state's elderly residents. "Society is judged by how we take care of the least of us," he said.
Another defeated amendment would have allowed Planned Parenthood to keep receiving funds from the state to provide medical services unrelated to abortions for poor women.
"This budget in general is not just an attack on citizens. It's an attack on women," said Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, in support of the Planned Parenthood amendment. "You've gone from attacking their children, all the way to their health."
Republicans point out that nearly $3 million in the state budget – through federal grants – would go to teen pregnancy prevention initiatives.
The Senate also defeated an attempt to separate an effort to extend jobless benefits to more than 40,000 North Carolina residents who have exhausted all unemployment benefits. Democrats wanted a standalone bill, but Republicans wanted the measure kept within the budget.
While in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Perdue compared the spending plan to a fig leaf on a statue, "covering up parts so we really don't see the cuts fully." She later issued a series of news releases analyzing the impact on school districts across the state.
The Wake County Public School System, for example, would lose $42.3 million under the proposal, while Durham Public Schools would have to cut $9.3 million and Cumberland County Schools would lose $15.1 million, according to the analysis by Perdue's staff.
"Folks need to stand up and make the right decisions, not do something that's politically expedient or something that is totally unnecessary," she said. "For all those people who are going to lose their jobs, this is unnecessary, and it does hurt North Carolina."
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger ended the lengthy debate Wednesday by noting that the difference in education funding between the governor's proposal and the spending plan before the Senate was a fraction of 1 percent.
The spending cuts in the proposed budget reflect the economic slowdown, Berger said, while trying to support education and other services.
"It's an effort to do what's best for North Carolina," he said.
The 31-19 vote in the Senate would be enough to overcome a Perdue veto, and a handful of House Democrats have said they would support the budget as well, making it extremely difficult for the governor to sustain a veto.