Raleigh, N.C. — Senate members voted 26-13 shortly after midnight Friday to give final approval to their 2016-17 spending proposal.
Unlike Thursday morning, when the debate was contentious on several points before senators voted along party lines to give preliminary approval to the $22.2 billion budget proposal, there was no debate early Friday. Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Northampton, was the only lawmaker to speak before Friday's vote, registering a complaint that the budget would eliminate extra funding for nine early college or STEM high schools, many in rural counties.
On Thursday, Democrats praised the large proposed teacher pay raises, but they denounced the lack of raises for state employees and the lack of a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, for state retirees.
"We cannot fix Recession-era teacher pay gaps in one year and certainly not to the detriment of 85,000 additional state employees as well as state retirees," Smith-Ingram argued. "We cannot give everything to everyone, but we can offer some balance in this budget and offer some support to all."
Sen. Joyce Waddell, D-Mecklenburg, said the average retiree receives just $20,000 a year and hasn’t seen a cost-of-living increase since 2009.
"Some of them are having to eat cat food as a means of their meals," Waddell, a retired educator, told the Senate. "We can do better."
Republicans countered that there wasn't enough money to cover both groups and argued that the COLA would have added to the state pension fund's liability in future years.
"I would have loved to have done a COLA. I would have loved to have seen the increases in the salary package bigger," said Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson. "But we were not able to do that at this time."
"You know we can't print money, and we have to try to do the best we can as we set these budgets," added Senate chief budget writer Harry Brown, R-Onslow. "It's about priorities."
There was enough money, however, to cover an increase in the standard state income tax deduction, expected to save the average joint filer about $50 when it takes effect for tax year 2017. The price tag for the tax cut – $145 million next year – is more than twice that of a 1.6 percent COLA, which would cost $67.2 million.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger defended the tax cut, saying taxpayers of the state expect lawmakers to exercise restraint in spending.
"They also expect us to think of them when there's extra money, and this year, as last year, there is extra money," Berger, R-Rockingham, said. "Part of that money is going back to the people of North Carolina, and that's important."
Senate Republicans and Democrats also sparred at length over a large proposed increase in the state's school voucher program, as well as a provision to throw out and replace water quality laws passed years ago to protect Jordan Lake and Falls Lake. But with a 2-1 majority in the chamber, GOP lawmakers easily fended off Democrats' attempts to strip those provisions from the plan.
One amendment also removed three historically black universities from a proposal to deeply discount tuition at five University of North Carolina campuses to offer students a more affordable option for college.