NC budget in Cooper's hands

The proposed $23 billion state budget landed on Gov. Roy Cooper's desk Thursday afternoon following final House approval of the measure.

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Matthew Burns
RALEIGH, N.C. — The proposed $23 billion state budget landed on Gov. Roy Cooper's desk Thursday afternoon following final House approval of the measure.

The House voted 77-38 in favor of the spending plan, and Republican leaders urged Cooper to sign it, saying it meshes with his stated budget priorities.

"Sign this bill, governor," Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, repeatedly intoned as he went through highlights of the budget.

Cooper on Tuesday called the budget "fiscally irresponsible," saying lawmakers should have invested more in education and rural infrastructure instead of cutting the corporate income tax rate.

That characterization caused budget writers and GOP leaders to shake their heads in amazement and accuse Cooper of being a hypocrite.

"I think the governor should spare us the melodrama and should save the theatrics for his campaign commercials," Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said during a news conference. "The people of North Carolina expect their elected officials to keep their word. Governor, if the things you've said and campaigned on are more than just empty promises, you will sign this budget."

The budget includes a 9.5 percent average raise for teachers, along with raises for state workers and a cost-of-living adjustment to the pensions of state retirees. It also calls for cutting the personal and corporate income tax rates in 2019 and puts another $363 million into the "rainy day" reserve fund.

Cooper has 10 days to sign or veto the budget, or let it become law without his signature. Spokesman Ford Porter said the governor wants to review the document before taking action, yet he continued to criticize it.

"Legislative Republicans are giving more tax breaks for the wealthy and shortchanging education, our economy and middle-class families," Porter said in a statement. "The more we learn about this budget, the worse it is. Instead of crafting a budget that works for the whole state, legislators voted to add hidden policy changes and diverted millions of dollars in spending for pet projects in their own districts at the last moment with no time for review."

House Minority Leader Darren Jackson argued that the budget could have done more for teachers and state workers, as well as funded other priorities if the Republican budget writers had skipped the corporate tax cut and bypassed multiple helpings of pork that were added to the final package.

"When you fail to fund a $150 stipend for teachers statewide to pay for supplies (instead of) out of their pockets, you cannot say you're pro-public education because the Caldwell County bookmobile got $100,000," Jackson, D-Wake, said during a separate news conference.

Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, told House members during an hour-long floor debate that the budget "does nothing to calm the fears of teachers and parents" that GOP lawmakers are trying to dismantle the state's public school system in favor of funding private schools. Per-pupil spending and the amount spent on textbooks are below levels of a decade ago, when adjusted for inflation, he said.

Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven, scoffed at the criticisms of Meyer and other Democrats.

"I'd like to request the speaker to assign a couple of my colleagues to hold the ceiling up because apparently the sky is falling," Speciale said, adding that Democrats participated in the budget process and never put forward an alternative spending plan.

"All we did was hear complaints, but you were participating in the vetting [process]," he said. "Now, for political purposes, in my opinion, and because we have cameras in the room here, we want to sit here and bloviate about all of the things that we don't agree with."

Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, shot back that Democrats weren't consulted in crafting the final budget, which GOP leaders from the House and the Senate hammered out behind closed doors over the past two weeks.

"None of us had any input, and I think very few of y'all had any input either," Martin said.

"We can all look in this budget line by line and find something we don't like, but at the end of the day, this is a fiscally responsible budget for the state," House Majority Leader John Bell said. "It puts our state in the right direction. It funds the core components of government and moves our state forward."

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