Raleigh, N.C. — Senators gave tentative approval Wednesday to a $20.6 billion budget that Republican leaders say will help right North Carolina fiscal ship even as Democrats slammed cuts to schools and economic development programs.
The vote was along party lines, with 33 Republicans voting yes and 17 Democrats voting no.
Another Senate vote is scheduled for Thursday, at which point it will be the House's turn to craft a state spending plan.
"We have emphasized getting our balance sheet back in order," Sen. Pete Brunstetter, R-Forsyth, told his colleagues, introducing the bill.
Many of the exchanges during Wednesday's more than three-hour debate were testy, with Republicans slapping aside amendments offered by Democrats.
The most fundamental difference between the two parties focused on $770 million GOP leaders set aside for a yet-to-be filed tax reform package. That's money Republican leaders say would not be raised by their proposed tax bill. Democrats said that reserve required unnecessary cuts to the budget.
"Budget are about priorities, and this budget shines a bright light on your misguided priorities," said Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake. "It makes no sense at all. You do not have to fire thousands of teacher assistants. You do not have to raise class size."
Stein offered an amendment that would have undone many of proposals to cut costs in state education programs. Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, scoffed at his suggestion, saying Democratic policies had lead to high unemployment and dropout rates.
"It reminds me of Disneyland, where nothing's true and nothing is real," Rucho said of Stein's remarks. "We've put education as a priority. We've put funds there to make sure every child and every person in North Carolina is ready to take on the competitive jobs of the future."
Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg, stepped in on behalf of Stein, asking Lt. Gov. Dan Forest whether Rucho was properly debating the amendment. Forest ruled Rucho was in order.
"Pay attention Sen. Graham, you might learn something," Rucho retorted.
Budget redirects economic development funds
The Senate budget redirects funding away from existing public-private partnerships such as the Rural Center and Minority Economic Development Center, concentrating all economic development funding in the Commerce Department.
Republicans say this was done to save money on administration and ensure it was spent properly.
But Democrats sought to redirect the money back to its existing programs.
"Because you won't listen to us ... you are emasculating rural North Carolina," said Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash.
Bryant was critical of what she and her fellow Democrats said the cuts were being made to pay for a "tax cut for the rich," inflaming Republican leaders.
"I have looked through this budget, and I've heard your talking points about tax cuts for the rich," Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson said. "Can you point me to the line and the page number for the tax cut?"
Bryant struggled to answer the question, but she was referring to the $770 million set aside to pay for the Senate's anticipated tax reform package. That package is not part of the budget bill and has not been filed as a formal piece of legislation.
However, details of the plan have been rolled out by Senate leaders by way of a press release and website. Some of that material indicates lower income people might end up paying more in taxes while people in upper income brackets would pay fewer taxes overall.
Stein pointed out that Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger outlined the plan in the online video.
"Are we talking about videos on the computer or are we taling about the state budget?" Apodaca asked in mock frustration. "I can go on the computer and find videos of a lot of things."
Woodard takes an ethics dig
Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, used an amendment to take a dig at the McCrory administration.
His proposed changes would have prohibited cabinet secretaries from having outside employment. That was aimed squarely at Kiernan Shanahan, secretary of the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety. Until this week, Shanahan was still working for his law firm as well as serving in his government job.
A second part of Woodard's amendment would have prohibited the spouses of senior elected and appointed officials from registering as lobbyists. That was aimed at Yolanda Stith, a lobbyist married to Gov. Pat McCrory's Chief of Staff, Thomas Stith.
"This is a good government amendment," Woodard said.
Apodaca responded with scorn.
"My, my, my. We can pick up the newspaper and make things personal," he said, calling Woodard's move "pretty low." Apodaca used a procedural motion to keep senators from voting directly on Woodard's amendment.
Republicans had their differences
All Senate Republicans weren't happy with every section of the budget.
Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, took issue with a provision of the budget that required tolls be added to all ferries, even those without tolls right now.
"The river ferries are virtually all community traffic," Cook said, saying those ferries carried mostly people going to and from work.
Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, tried to amend the budget to outlaw study of the Red Route, an option for extending Interstate 540 south through Garner that has been controversial. His amendment was voted down.
And Sen. Ralph Hise attempted to push through an amendment that would have changed the rates Medicaid pays to hospitals throughout the state. It sparked lengthy debate, with many Senators worried that their local hospitals would be hurt by the change. Hise ended up withdrawing his amendment.
But in the end, Republicans rallied behind their leaders for a party-line vote.
"Predictions of dire consequences are not actually something we should be all that concerned about in terms of their accuracy," said Sen. Phil Berger, the president pro tempore of the Senate. He pointed out that two years ago, Democrats and their allies were predicting chaos in public education and elsewhere in government. "The last I looked, the schools were still open. We were still educating children. We were still taking care of things we need to address. But we were doing it in a way that respects the taxpayers of this state."