Raleigh, N.C. — The Senate voted 38-11 Tuesday after relatively little debate in favor of the $23 billion budget legislative leaders have hammered out in recent weeks.
A final Senate vote on the spending plan is expected Wednesday. Meanwhile, the House expects to hold its two required votes on the budget on Wednesday and Thursday.
The new fiscal year starts July 1.
Senate Republicans praised the budget, which gives raises to teachers, school administrators and state workers and a cost-of-living adjustment to state retirees' pension checks. The budget also calls for lowering the personal and corporate income tax rates in 2019 and sets aside $363 million in the state's "rainy day" reserve fund.
"It's taken a lot of thought and time to put this together," said Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow.
But Senate Democrats said budget writers should have put more thought into investing more in education and state infrastructure and less into cutting taxes for businesses and wealthy individuals.
"There doesn't seem to be much sight in this budget, much less no vision, and if there is sight, it's short-sightedness," Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue said.
Blue, D-Wake, said the proposed tax cut would save the average family enough for one dinner at a restaurant, and he noted $102 million was set aside in the final budget for projects that weren't in either of the spending plans the Senate and the House passed in the last month, money that could have been invested elsewhere.
"That's not going to have a real impact on what they do and their kids' future," he said. "For most families, this budget doesn't change the prospects in the years to come."
Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, used former Gov. Pat McCrory's "Carolina comeback" slogan of a state economic recovery in recent years to slam the plan.
"The reality is there are a lot of people in this state that have never seen the so-called comeback. A lot of people are waiting, and with the budget that we have here, they're going to be waiting for a good long time because this is not a comeback. This is a 'Carolina cutback,'" McKissick said. "We just keep cutting back and cutting back and cutting back, drastically cutting taxes that could boost our economy."
In addition to noting that revenue lost to tax cuts could have gone to everything from expanding pre-kindergarten access to offering scholarships to make community college more affordable, Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, said the money directed to the Opportunity Scholarship school voucher program could have provided teachers with more classroom supplies so they wouldn't have to spend their own money on such items.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said, however, that lawmakers should approve the budget because it met three demands put forward by Gov. Roy Cooper: It raises teacher salaries by about 10 percent over the next two years, it cuts taxes for middle-class families and it socks away money in the reserve fund.
Cooper earlier in the day called the budget "fiscally irresponsible" because it spends less money than either the House or the Senate plans on teacher salaries, doesn't expand broadband access to rural area and leaves thousands of children on pre-kindergarten waiting lists.
Berger disputed the characterization of $102 million in new spending in the budget as pork, and he also pushed back on Democratic claims that the budget undercuts Attorney General Josh Stein's ability to carry out his job.
"I know there are some folks who have spoken today who are pining away for the halcyon days of budgets that fund every need or want that is out there. Unfortunately, those folks who are pining away for those days don't remember what resulted from that sort of budgeting," Berger said, citing budget deficits and unemployment during the recession.
"Rather than having a policy where what we want is more money out of the pockets of the people of this state in order to finance more and more government," he said, "what we have in this budget is a budget that ... strikes an appropriate balance between those funds that rightfully should go to state government to fund those obligations and the money that really ought to stay in the hands of the people that earned it, the taxpayers."
House Democrats spent much of Tuesday reviewing the budget and agreed to allow the first budget vote on Wednesday – House rules would have required the chamber to wait until Thursday and Friday to cast votes.
"Our members feel comfortable enough," said House Minority Leader Darren Jackson. "Doesn't mean they like it."