Raleigh, N.C. — After a long and contentious night, the state Senate approved its $21.1 billion spending plan for 2014-15 early Saturday.
Votes were held Friday night and shortly after midnight Saturday. The first vote was 32-15; the second was 32-10. Sen. Gene McLaurin, D-Richmond, who backed the budget both times, was the only senator to cross party lines in the two votes.
The entire budget process in the Senate – from the first public roll-out of the bill and supporting documentation late Wednesday to final passage – lasted about 52 hours.
Democrats complained about the speed of the process, saying it allowed little public input, negotiation or debate.
"(We have) a 48-hour window to study the budget, comprehend the budget, interpret the budget and respond to the budget," said Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg.
Graham compared the party caucuses in the General Assembly to echo chambers, where lawmakers hear only their own positive feedback about the budget or other legislation without ever listening to constituents affected by it.
"We're making substantial changes to how state government operates," he said. "Let's have some other voices involved in the discussion."
Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, said Republicans in the General Assembly were lucky to have 48 hours to consider a budget when Democrats controlled the legislature.
Still, it was telling that Republican senators offered 18 amendments to the budget. A few fixed errors in the 274-page bill, but most addressed provisions that a particular senator didn't have a chance to add or delete previously. The only amendments to fail were the three put forward by Democrats.
"Have some confidence in yourself and the quality of your ideas," said Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, who argued that shifting the State Bureau of Investigation from under the attorney general to gubernatorial control should have been debated as a separate bill, not stuffed into the budget.
An amendment offered by Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, to halt the shift was killed through a parliamentary procedure allowing senators to vote simply on giving the governor the power to fire the SBI director for certain reasons.
Aside from the SBI move, cuts to Medicaid and education drew the most debate.
The Senate budget ends Medicaid coverage or eligibility for more than 15,000 blind, disabled or elderly people, cutting the state's support for the program by about $32 million.
Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Madison, said North Carolina's Medicaid program has traditionally exceeded federal requirements, leading to the state spending $2 billion more than necessary since 2011. The budget only scales back the program to the minimum federal standards, he said, adding that the people who were being dropped from Medicaid could apply for subsidized insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, said those affected were too poor to qualify for federal subsidies, and he offered an amendment that would expand Medicaid in North Carolina as allowed under the Affordable Care Act.
"We should not be putting gaping holes in the safety net" for vulnerable North Carolinians, McKissick said. "We need to shore it up."
Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, countered that North Carolina can't afford to expand Medicaid, which routinely chews up any extra money in the state budget.
"When is enough enough?" Brown asked. "When is it time to put money on other priorities in the state?"
One of those priorities is raising teacher salaries. The Senate budget sets aside $468 million to give teachers an average $5,800 salary increase, but those accepting the money would lose their career status rights, which is commonly referred to as tenure.
To pay for the raises, the budget slashes funding for teaching assistants in early grades by half.
Stein called the education budget "a shell game," while Graham referred to it as "all style, no substance."
"You all fired thousands of TAs last year, and of those you didn't fire, you're firing half of the remaining ones this year," Stein said. "This budget is not about paying teachers a salary that reflects the importance of their work. This budget is trying to cloak your political vulnerability at the expense of our schoolkids."
"No teacher in North Carolina should have to choose between giving up tenure – something they have earned and are legally obligated to have – versus getting a pay increase," Graham said. "No teacher in North Carolina should have to decided between getting a pay increase and losing their teacher assistant."
"I’ve been trying to figure out what is it that some of your first-, second-, third-grade teachers must have done to you," Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue said to his Republican colleagues. "I don’t know how they angered you or what they did, but it must have been at a very young age because it is deeply ingrained in the way we’re treating our teachers."
Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, scoffed at Democratic complaints, noting that they gave only lip-service to teachers, not raises, when they controlled the General Assembly.
"I think that (budget) shows we are serious about funding education in North Carolina, and especially in the Senate," Apodaca said. "I hope our colleagues across the hall feel the same way and on Jones Street."
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said teacher pay was the No. 1 priority in the budget, and Republican lawmakers adjusted other spending as needed to ensure the money was there to pay for it. Anyone who opposes the budget, Berger said, votes against ending what he called the embarrassment of North Carolina's low teacher pay.
"You're either for raising pay for teachers, and you're going to find a way to do it – and that's what we've done in this budget – or you're not for it. You're just talking about it," he said.