Raleigh, N.C. — Fuses are getting shorter in the Senate these days, and that frustration was in sharp relief Thursday as lawmakers approved their third budget deadline extension.
The continuing resolution, House Bill 18, gives lawmakers until Sept. 18 to complete work on a compromise $21.74 billion spending plan for the current fiscal year.
Introducing the measure in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday morning, Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown said he believes "the budget process is beginning to gather a little steam," referencing agreements Wednesday between House and Senate leaders on spending targets and bonuses for state employees.
"We understand that a lot of people are frustrated. Believe me, when you're an Appropriations chair, it gets very frustrating as well," Brown, R-Onslow, said.
Brown said House and Senate subcommittees were meeting Wednesday, Thursday and through the weekend to complete work on their areas of the spending plan.
Despite what he described as "some sticking points to work through," he said, "The plan is to have this budget done a few days before the 18th."
Questions from Democrats on the panel about funding for teacher assistants prompted sharp responses from Republican leaders.
Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, said school superintendents have the flexibility to use their share of the $100 million allotted for enrollment growth in the continuing resolution to pay for teacher assistants if they choose to.
"The last time we funded TAs fully, they took $90 million and bought other things with it," Tillman protested. "I know we hear this hue and cry – just remind your school superintendents of that fact, what they did with that money when they had it."
Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, said he'd "heard a lot of yakking" about the impact of the budget delay on schools.
"Do you know of any schools that did not open this week?" he asked. "Do you know of any schools that didn’t have teachers there for the children?"
Asked by Sen. Don Davis, D-Wayne, about the status of funding for driver's education, Brown protested that school districts shouldn't be surprised state funding is being phased out.
"The LEAs were put on notice last year that this stuff was ending," said Brown. "It’s like they didn’t read last year’s budget, I guess."
However, Brown added, "I think there’s going be a compromise. I’m confident that somehow driver's ed is going to get funded at some level."
The sparring continued on the Senate floor later Thursday morning.
"We ought to have those who are going to do the negotiating go ahead and get behind closed doors, open doors, wherever they're going to do it and get this thing done," said Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, arguing that the additional delay will cause further uncertainty for schools entering the new school year. "It's time to bring an end to this thing."
Blue suggested that lawmakers suspend their own salaries until the budget passes. "In any other business, any other enterprise I've been involved in, when you don't get the job done, you don't get paid."
Apodaca defended the additional extension. "I'm happy to stand here today and tell you that, in the last 48 hours, we've had more movement than we've had in the last six months."
"I'm sorry that Wake County is having problems with TAs and driver's education," he sniped at Blue. "I guess $80 million in the bank doesn't go quite as far as it used to."
The measure passed the Senate 37-6.
Fifteen minutes later, the House passed the measure with no debate, 108-5.
The measure is on its way to Gov. Pat McCrory for his signature.