General Assembly approves $20.6 billion state budget

Lawmakers have sent a $20.6 billion spending plan to the governor after lengthy debates over its impact on education.

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Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — State lawmakers gave their final blessing to the $20.6 billion budget Wednesday afternoon.

Senators voted 31-17 in favor of the bill, while the House voted 66-52 in favor. The measure now goes to Gov. Pat McCrory for his signature or veto. 

The measure contains several different policy matters, including creating a system of vouchers that would put tax dollars toward paying for private schooling for some low-income students. Another education provision would strip teachers of career status, a benefit many call tenure. 

Budget writers also had to cope with a series of unexpected costs in the Department of Health and Human services, particularly with Medicaid. The plan also begins to restore reserve funds set aside for emergency purposes. 

In the House, Speaker Thom Tillis took the unusual, if not unprecedented step, of taking a seat on the floor so he could debate the bill. His comments reflected frustration with criticism that Democrats have heaped upon Republicans who control both the House and Senate. 

"Does anybody really think that I came down to this legislature so we wouldn't take care of the helpless who need the state's help? That's ridiculous," Tillis said.

He said that it was Democrats who controlled the legislature until the end of 2010 who created many of the budget problems with which the state is still coping. Tillis pointed specifically to cost overruns in the Medicaid health insurance program for the poor and disabled. 

"What we have to do first is drain the swamp of bad decisions that have been made in this legislature for decades," he said.

Democrats focused the bulk of their comments on education. In particular, they pointed to the state's failure to raise teacher salaries.

"There's a lot of parents that teach our kids, leave school and work a second job. There's a lot of parents that teach our kids, leave our schools and go apply for Medicaid. You may not want to believe it, but it's true," said Rep. Carla Cunningham, D-Mecklenburg.

Virtually all the debate in the Senate Wednesday focused on education, with Democrats decrying cuts to the public schools and university system and Republicans defending their plan as "responsible."

Typical was an exchange between Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt and Rules Committee Chairman Tom Apodaca.

"In this budget, we hurt public schools, teachers. In prior bills, we've attacked women," started Nesbitt, D-Buncombe.

Apodaca, R-Henderson, interrupted.

"What bill are we talking about here?" he asked, suggesting that Nesbitt wasn't focusing on material actually in the bill. 

"You hurt the public schools in this bill," Nesbitt replied.

"Would you point out in this budget where we hurt the public schools?" Apodaca asked.

Nesbitt paused for a moment.

"Page 1," Nesbitt said. "You cut half a billion dollars for education in this budget."

Republicans pushed back against that assertion, saying the state would put more money into education in 2013-14 than it did the previous fiscal year. Nesbitt was pointing to numbers that show how much would need to be spent to keep up with the growth of the K-12 and university systems.

"We did not raise class sizes, senator," said Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph. "We gave flexibility to the school districts. If anybody cuts teachers, it will be the local systems doing that."

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