Local News

N.C. Senate Tentatively Approves Budget As Tempers Flare

Posted June 23, 2004 11:16 a.m. EDT

— Tempers flared during Wednesday's debate on the Senate budget, prompting a Republican senator to challenge Democratic Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue to throw him out of the chamber.

The verbal sparring between Perdue and Sen. Hugh Webster, R-Alamance, had not ended after the Senate adjourned for the day.

"She ought to be ashamed to show her face in public," said Webster, accusing the lieutenant governor of inconsistency on her rulings while directing debate as president of the Senate.

Perdue said later: "We ask our grade children to behave better than that."

Perdue had ruled several times in favor of fellow Democrats during the 1-1/2-hour vote on the $15.8 billion budget proposal, which was tentatively approved by a party-line vote of 24-19.

Democrats touted their removal of acute health and education cuts in the House plan and the addition of corporate tax breaks and other economic incentives. The proposal also set aside $12 million for university projects designed to jump start the economy in the Triad and to plan for a motorsports training complex run by UNC-Charlotte.

Sen. Fern Shubert, R-Union, who already had an earlier decision by Perdue, introduced an amendment seeking to change identification requirements to receive a driver's license in North Carolina.

Perdue, instead, accepted a replacement amendment from Majority Leader Tony Rand, D-Cumberland. That decision sent Webster on the offensive, criticizing Perdue for the ruling.

Perdue said Webster was out of order, but he replied: "This is absurd, and you're out of order."

Webster said she could have him escorted out of the chamber if she wanted.

Perdue did not answer. The two spoke at the front of the chamber but did not get their differences resolved.

Webster said later that the Senate rules designed to create fair debate "have been revised and revised and revised to suit the majority party."

Perdue, who served five terms in the Senate before being elected lieutenant governor in 2000, said she could not remember a time when a senator had been thrown out of the chamber.

She said she was simply doing her job and that Webster was out of line on the chamber floor.

"This body is too important to the people of North Carolina to have people behave like children in this chamber," Perdue said.

Despite criticisms from Gov. Mike Easley's administration for its accounting and Senate Republicans for being bloated and unfriendly to business, the budget was hailed by Senate leaders as fiscally sound.

"This budget .... makes the right investments in the economy, in education and the critical health needs of our citizens," said Sen. Linda Garrou, D-Forsyth, one of three chief budget-writers. "We've done the right thing for North Carolina at the right time."

Easley's budget advisors claim the Senate is being too optimistic about the state's financial future, saying the Senate plan is based on money that does not exist yet.

"We are going to do all the spending that we can afford to do, not spending outside our needs," said Dan Gerlach, Easley's budget advisor. "That's what got us in trouble before, and we are not going back to those days."

The proposal also spends $40 million more than the House to generate higher pay raises for teachers and principals, as well as for higher-salaried rank-and-file employees.

After a final vote Thursday, the Senate budget will return to the House, which approved its own budget plan earlier this month. The House likely will reject the plan, leaving negotiators with less than a week to work out their differences and get it to Easley for his signature before the fiscal year begins July 1.

The final budget bill adjusts the second year of a two-year budget package that was approved in 2003.

The Senate plan is about $325 million higher than what the General Assembly agreed to last year for fiscal year 2005. Both the House and Senate proposals are $1 billion larger than the budget for the current fiscal year.

"This budget is going to require us to raise taxes, cut services or do both next year," Senate Minority Leader Jim Forrester, R-Gaston, said after the vote.

Senate Democrats turned back several GOP amendments, including one that would have slashed personal and corporate income tax rates, paying for it by reducing vacant positions within state government and embarking on a Medicaid fraud program. The budget already has a series of economic incentives, including a smaller corporate tax exemption.

Like the House plan, the Senate spends about $118 million to teach an estimated 25,300 additional students entering the public schools and higher education campuses this fall.

The Senate leaves out a $27 million cut for local school districts and sprinkles throughout additional scholarships for future teachers and a new program to assist disadvantaged students in low-wealth schools.

Senators declined to give Easley less than half the $59.5 million he requested to reduce third-grade class sizes and to expand the More at Four preschool initiative. The House gave him all that he sought.

Easley's budget adviser also complained that the Senate relied on a $222 million surplus in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30 -- $24 million higher than earlier projections.

The spending plan would give principals and teachers an average raise of 2.75 percent. Rank-and-file state employees would get their first permanent salary increases since 2001. They would get a 2.75 percent, or $1,000, whichever is greater.

The House proposal offers less for teachers and only a $1,000 flat raise for other state workers.

The Senate proposal reportedly would give rank-and-file workers more than $1,000 with salaries above $36,000. The lowest-wage workers within state government could see their salaries increase by more than 5 percent.

As in the House plan, community college faculty and staff would get an additional 2 percent raise above what the state employees receive.

On health matters, the Senate expands the NC Health Choice insurance program for children and spends more on child-care subsidies than the House. Mental-health programs also would receive about $11 million more.