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Acrimonious budget debate roils House

Posted May 31, 2018 1:15 p.m. EDT
Updated July 13, 2018 1:50 p.m. EDT

— House lawmakers gave preliminary approval Thursday to a $23.9 billion spending plan for next year – but not before nearly two hours of angry, bitter debate over the process used to construct it.

The House will take its final vote on the budget Friday after its 72-45 vote Thursday afternoon. No Democrats voted for the budget, and Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, was the only Republican to vote against it.

The Senate took its final budget vote, 36-14, with no debate Thursday morning. So, after the final House vote, the measure goes to Gov. Roy Cooper, who will have 10 days to decide whether to sign it, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

Republican House and Senate leaders negotiated the budget behind closed doors, then advanced it as a conference report, a type of legislation that cannot be amended. That's a departure from how budgets are generally handled, even in an even-numbered year when lawmakers are making adjustments to final year of a two-year budget.

Legislative leaders downplayed the parliamentary maneuver, saying the aim of the process was to move the budget quickly through both chambers and onto Gov. Roy Cooper's desk by the end of the week. But Democrats – and some rank-and-file Republicans – accused them of shutting out their voices and shortchanging the democratic process.

House senior budget chairman Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, tried to head off the debate before it started, urging Democrats, "Lay aside any procedural grievances of the moment. Vote for our shared values. Vote for our future. Vote for this budget."

But House Minority Leader Darren Jackson brought the process debate front and center by moving to send the conference report back to committee to debate freezing tax cuts for those making over $200,000. He acknowledged that that's a parliamentary motion rarely used in North Carolina, but argued it was the only way members of the minority party could put their budget preference on the record.

"Together, the Democratic caucus represents at least 4 million people. Call us crazy, but we think they should have a say so," Jackson, D-Wake, told Republican members, accusing Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore of skipping the usual budget process to limit debate, even among Republicans.

"They did it so they could control it, so the corner offices could control what’s in it. They’re afraid that you might agree with us on some issues," he said.

Several Democrats joined in the process-shaming, expressing disappointment, resentment and frustration that they'd been completely shut out of the most important job the legislature does.

"We’re supposed to be a democratic deliberative body. We are not," said Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham. "We are an autocratic body at this juncture that is being forced to vote on something that we should not be forced to vote on."

Rep. Charles Graham, D-Robeson, called the process "the most partisan situation I’ve encountered since I’ve been here," while Rep. Kelly Alexander, D-Mecklenburg, compared it to totalitarianism, Russia or "Venezuela under Maduro."

Even some Republicans also spoke out against the process.

"All we’d lose is maybe a week if we went back and ran this through the normal way of doing things, and you’d still get probably the same exact product," Blust said.

"Being a Republican, I want Republicans to be the best we can be," agreed Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus. "This is not the best that we can be. This is not near what we ought to be."

The prolonged, sometimes personal debate angered House Rules Chairman David Lewis, R-Harnett, who said he was disappointed that Moore had allowed it to go on so long.

"To claim that you are somehow not being heard simply because it fits in your scheme to eviscerate, mitigate, conjugate, agitate and whatever else all these tax-exempt leftist groups try to do in Raleigh is completely absurd," a seething Lewis said.

It also angered Dollar, who recounted how Democrats had disqualified a budget amendment he ran during his first term in 2005. He called Jackson's effort a "Back to the Future" moment, saying it was merely an attempt to return to old tax-and-spend policies.

"Keep in mind what's important," he said. "It's the substance of this budget."

When the House finally got around to debating substance, Democrats spent another three hours criticizing teacher pay, retiree pensions, Medicaid, school safety initiatives and the response to GenX contamination in the state's waterways, saying all of those issues were inadequately addressed in the budget.

"The folks who built this state and made this state what it is are losers. They are losing in this process," Graham said of a one-time 1 percent increase to the pensions of retired state workers.

"We prioritized tax cuts for millionaires and corporations over teacher pay," said Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe.

"We're sent here to solve problems. We're not sent here to create problems," said Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange. "By not expanding Medicaid, we are creating problems, and people in this state are dying because we failed to act."

"This budget, in school safety, does not spend one plug nickel [on] any gun safety legislation," said Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham. "We're turning a blind eye to the thousands of students in North Carolina who asked our legislators to do something about gun violence that does not just happen in schools, but in churches, in malls, in concert areas and in homes."

GOP lawmakers responded by touting that the budget gives raises to all state workers and teachers, provides money for school safety and to address GenX while not breaking the bank.

"It's time for us to collectively stop using these teachers as political ping-pong balls, to bounce across the political table every budget season," said Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin.

"I'm hearing the refrain from my colleagues on the other side that what they really want to do [is] they want to follow the governor's lead and raise taxes. Raise taxes, raise taxes," Dollar said. "That's not a sustainable solution. That's not a solution at all."