Raleigh, N.C. — Sen. Tamara Barringer, R-Wake, says a last-minute addition to the Senate's $22.225 billion budget prevented her from voting on the bill, the largest and most far-reaching piece of legislation lawmakers pass every year.
"I had nothing to do with putting it in and was tremendously disappointed when I saw it," Barringer said Thursday.
Barringer, who represents southwestern Wake County, is a clinical assistant professor of legal studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School, where she teaches a course in "leadership, ethics and professionalism."
The provision Barringer cites in her official request to be excused from voting directs $500,000 to the Office of the Chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill to be used to study nutrient management strategies that can be used to clean up local lakes. That study would presumably examine mechanical solutions such as the failed SolarBee program as well as a more recent plan to lean on freshwater mussels to clean up Falls Lake and Jordan Lake.
Barringer, whose expertise is in business and law, presumably would not be involved in that study, and taxpayers give the UNC system, and UNC-Chapel Hill specifically, millions of dollars every year. The appropriation contained in the Senate budget would set aside $248.3 million just for academics at UNC-Chapel Hill.
"It's the specificity of this particular provision that's the problem," she said.
Barringer reports to the dean of the business school, who in turn reports to the chancellor. Voting to give the chancellor's office a direct appropriation could be construed as currying favor with her superiors.
"Ethics are tremendously important to me," she said. "I conferred with the ethics attorney here for half a day, and she concluded and has given me the legal opinion that does conflict me out of discussion on the budget."
When lawmakers encounter a conflict on a bill, they submit a form to the Clerk of the Senate asking to be excused from voting. On her form, Barringer writes, "I take very seriously my responsibilities and the ethics of the Office of Senator so, due to this direct conflict of interest, I have to recuse myself from the entire budget process."
The Senate approved the budget on a 33-15 vote. Both legislative chambers have passed versions of the state spending bill. Negotiators are now poised to craft a compromise bill. If that study provision is removed, Barringer said, she will ask her colleagues for permission to re-enter the discussion and vote.
She would not comment on how she would have voted, but all other Senate Republicans backed the measure.
Like every other member of the General Assembly, Barringer faces re-election this year. She is running to keep her seat against Democrat Susan Evans and Libertarian Susan Hogarth. Asked whether she was potentially avoiding a vote that could be problematic on the campaign trail, Barringer said, "No sir," adding that she has "never walked" on a tough vote, using the legislative slang for avoiding a politically fraught vote.
"I was angry when I saw this was in the budget," Barringer said. "I don't want anyone to thing this was any kind of political move."