In a historic legislative session where the new Republican majority has pushed aggressively to reshape government, five Democrats ended up wielding considerable power over the session's most important document: the state budget.
Early Saturday morning, those five conservative Democrats broke with Gov. Bev Perdue and voted with Republicans to pass the $19.7 billion budget with a veto-proof majority.
House Democrats Jim Crawford, Bill Owens, William Brisson, Dewey Hill and Tim Spear voted for the budget at every opportunity since it left the state House last month, and for the Senate rewrite Saturday. The five said they had different reasons for their initial decisions to back a plan that other elected Democrats have vilified and that education leaders deplore.
They've already drawn action from detractors, with the N.C. Association of Educators sending fliers to voters in the five districts. "Don't let Raleigh politicians fail our schools," the mailer reads.
The $19.7 billion plan the five Democrats supported came after several conversations with Perdue and detailed negotiations with Republican legislative leaders and budget writers.
The Democrats said they chose to work with Republicans because it was clear that the GOP was not going to budge on eliminating the 1-cent temporary sales tax increase, and that Perdue was not going to back down from her demand to keep part of the tax. As they negotiated, they were able to protect projects in their districts and watch out for their priorities.
"Our thought was, if we don't get this budget out of here and she vetoes the budget, we're going to have a train wreck," said Hill, of Columbus County.
Perdue bashed the budget repeatedly last week, implying that parts of it are "evil" but has not said whether she will veto it. She has 10 days to do so after she receives it.
The support from House Democrats has boosted Republican confidence that they will get the budget they want.
Meetings with Perdue
Just a few weeks ago, Republicans were speculating about a government shutdown if they and Perdue could not agree on a budget by June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
Now, with the chance to turn back a veto, they're planning to finish the session in a few weeks.
The five talked before the first House vote in early May about supporting the budget and told other Democrats of their decision. Perdue invited the five to breakfast after they first voted for the budget.
"We said, 'Governor, what do you have to have in this budget not to veto it?'" said Crawford, of Oxford. "She said teachers and teachers assistants. So we made up a list. The five of us came together on this."
They decided to push for $300 million more for K-12 education and $100 million more for the UNC system. The Golden LEAF Foundation, an organization that supports economic development projects, was to keep $50 million of the money it is set to receive next year from the state's share of the national tobacco settlement. Republicans wanted to divert the entire $67 million headed for Golden LEAF in each of the next two years to the state treasury.
Members of the group spoke to Perdue several times as budget negotiations progressed, Crawford said.
Finally, she and the team of five parted ways. At one of the meetings, they said, Perdue told them she wanted more changes.
"She's disagreed with us and what we're doing," Crawford said. "She wanted more things, and we told her we couldn't get more things. It just wasn't there."
Perdue considers her conversations with legislators private, spokeswoman Chrissy Pearson said. But Pearson confirmed that Perdue talked to the five about her goal of preserving teacher and teacher-assistant jobs, funding education and other public services.
Owens is a business-oriented Democrat who's a friend of Perdue and an active supporter. "We kind of felt we were friends of both sides, and we could mediate," he said.
Pot was sweetened
The five Democrats also got some things they wanted. Brisson, of Bladen County, said he voted for the budget because an amendment preserved a minimum-security prison in his district that was going to be closed. And later, he voted for the final budget because he was able to get the Senate to ease up on Medicaid cuts.
Owens, who lives in Elizabeth City, and Spear, who lives in Washington County, were able to assure money for a toll bridge across the Currituck Sound and an exemption from tolls for the Hatteras-Ocracoke and Currituck-Knotts Island ferries.
In addition, the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City, which the Senate originally wanted to close, is going to stay open. Crawford got a provision he wanted for the Butner Public Safety Division.
The five were among the most likely of the House Democrats to work with Republicans. Four of the five voted for Republican Thom Tillis to lead the House.
Crawford, Owens and Hill have known one another for years. Crawford was a longtime House budget committee co-chairman, and Owens helped iron out differences between House and Senate budgets when Democrats were in charge.
Payback for NCAE?
The work of the five Democrats is meeting with Republican plaudits and Democratic criticism.
Minority Leader Joe Hackney, an Orange County Democrat, said the five had usurped the governor's role in budget negotiations.
Tillis applauded their bravery. "I think that they have demonstrated a higher degree of courage than just about anybody I've seen within the five years I'm here," he said.
And he's willing to protect them.
On Friday, he announced in a closed-door meeting of his caucus (broadcast accidentally over an open microphone) a last-minute committee hearing on a bill that will hurt the NCAE by making it harder for the group to collect dues.
"The NCAE has gone into all five districts with mailers hammering these Democrats," Tillis said. "We just want to give them a little taste of what's about to come."
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