@NCCapitol

@NCCapitol

Senate approves state budget

Posted May 30, 2018 5:52 p.m. EDT
Updated May 31, 2018 11:34 a.m. EDT

— The state's new $24 billion budget cleared its first floor vote of the session Wednesday, speeding toward final passage as Republicans and Democrats largely divided on the plan look toward November's general elections.

The vote, the first of two the Senate will take on the budget, was 36-14. Sen. Don Davis, D-Pitt, was the lone Democrat to cross the aisle to vote for a plan crafted by Republicans in a process that allowed no amendments once leadership signed off on budget changes drafted almost entirely behind closed doors.

Thursday update: The budget has now passed third reading in the Senate by the same 36-14 vote. The House is debating the budget and is expected to take a final vote Friday.

Davis occupies what may be the only competitive Senate district held by a Democrat, making this a tougher vote for him than most. North Carolina Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse called Davis out by name ahead of the vote, and Republicans were already plotting campaign commercials on social media during the debate, ticking off the state employee and teacher raises Democrats would be voting against.

Democrats prefer a budget from Gov. Roy Cooper that totals about $600 million more, gives larger raises to teachers and puts more money into school safety and environmental programs. It also freezes income and corporate tax rates instead of allowing cuts planned for 2019.

Democrats have also blasted the process GOP leaders used to rush this budget toward final passage. In the past two days, Democratic lawmakers have compared the GOP leaders or that process to Chinese dictator Mao Zedong, Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev, North Korea and rape.

Republicans dismissed these criticisms as politics and hyperbole, all but daring them to vote against a budget that boosts teacher salaries by an average of 6.5 percent, increases State Highway Patrol salaries to a minimum of $44,000 and sets a new floor for state employee salaries at $31,200 a year, which equates to $15 an hour.

They also said Cooper's budget would quickly be out of balance, making promises it can't pay for in the future. Easy enough to propose, Senate budget writer Harry Brown, R-Onslow, said during floor debate, when you know it won't pass.

Democrats have said repeatedly during the debate that the budget fails North Carolina by valuing tax cuts for the wealthy over education funding and other priorities. They also see more pork than usual earmarked for Republican districts.

One Mecklenburg County lawmaker, for example, secured $200,000 for teachers to spend on school supplies, but the budget limited those grants to the 35 schools in his district. After this came to light, the group the money would have flowed through publicly rejected it.

The left-leaning North Carolina Budget & Tax Center put the pork tally in the budget at nearly $35 million. Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, who referenced Mao and Khrushchev on the Senate floor Wednesday, said this budget, "says oink, oink, oink in a way we haven't seen in a long time."

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said the budget isn't perfect, but he couldn't see legitimate reasons for the outrage Democrats expressed. Berger, R-Rockingham, said that, in 18 years in office, he's never seen a perfect budget.

"But I can tell you that this budget has more good than any budget I've seen in that period of time," he said.

Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, was one of several Democrats to seize on process in decrying the budget. He said GOP lawmakers are just trying to avoid a drawn-out public conversation on education funding, tax cuts for the wealthy and the other areas the budget hits. He said an oyster bill heard in committee Wednesday morning got more public deliberation.

"Defend that," Jackson ordered his colleagues across the chamber.

"You can't do it," he said. "You can't do it because the truth is it's a political calculation. You're betting that you'll pay less of a political price by eliminating any real budget process than you'd pay by actually going through that process, and you might be right."