North Carolina House passes budget after heated debate

$20.3 billion plan OK’d after heated debate May 30, 2012 

State House members spent more than seven hours Wednesday arguing, sometimes bitterly, over the proposed $20.3 billion budget along mostly partisan lines before passing it 73-46.

Five Democrats crossed party lines and joined Republicans to approve the budget just before 11 p.m., but most Democrats spent the day fighting for funding for meth lab investigators, drug courts and other programs. The Republican majority took the lead in swatting away most of those amendments. The House budget does not include any tax increases.

Charges of hypocrisy came from both sides in a debate that was a forum for the state’s polarized politics.

Legislators mocked and insulted one another as Democrats and Republicans passed around the blame for bad budgets.

Democrats charged that the budget does not fix problems in K-12 schools that Republicans created in the current budget, that it starves the state universities and that, relative to other states, unemployment is worse in North Carolina since Republicans took charge.

“The budget is a roadmap of where a state goes, and you’re poised once again to take us backwards,” said House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, an Orange County Democrat. “The University of North Carolina is in decline, and it’s in decline because of your budgets.”

The budget keeps K-12 schools from having to make more cuts, but does not bring back thousands of school employees who lost their jobs as a result of the current year’s budget, Democrats said. The budget, which takes effect July 1, does not fund enrollment growth at the state universities or substantially ease their budget cuts.

Rep. Bryan Holloway, a Stokes County Republican, countered that when Democrats were in charge, they authorized teacher furloughs and failed to offer state employee raises.

“How many teachers and teachers’ assistants did you all lay off?” he asked. “It’s not like it just started this year.”

The legislature is adjusting the second year of a two-year budget passed last year. The House budget now goes to the Senate, where it faces substantial changes.

Spirited debates

Before they began debating the budget in its entirety Wednesday evening, legislators first dealt with close to two dozen amendments – often in heated exchanges. Some of the most spirited debate was over withdrawing funding for Planned Parenthood, and a provision that may lead to another lawsuit.

The budget includes a provision that prohibits the state from signing contracts with providers of family planning or pregnancy prevention services. Though Planned Parenthood is not named in the budget, it is the only provider of such services that fits the description.

Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Fayetteville, called it a “cutely worded amendment that is nothing more than a fig leaf covering the majority’s open hostility to Planned Parenthood.”

Legislators tried in the budget they passed last year to cut off Planned Parenthood from state grants. Planned Parenthood sued in federal court, and a judge effectively negated the budget ban, and Planned Parenthood affiliates were able to receive $343,000 in state contracts.

Republicans said this new decision to prevent outside contracts is in keeping with a philosophy to give more spending control to local health departments.

But Melissa Reed, vice president for public policy with Planned Parenthood Health Systems, said another lawsuit is possible if the budget passes with the funding ban.

“We want to make sure we can stay a safety net provider,” Reed said.

The ‘war on women’

Democrats’ efforts to lift the prohibition failed, but along the way the House debate touched on the “war on women” and sex-selection abortions.

At least a half-dozen other states have frozen Planned Parenthood out of their state budgets over objections to giving money to an organization that performs abortions.

Planned Parenthood is prohibited from using government money for abortions, but one legislator said the state contracts free up other money Planned Parenthood can use for political purposes.

Rep. William Brawley, a Mecklenburg County Republican, deflected an observation that Planned Parenthood doesn’t mix its health care money with political funds.

The decision to pay for mailers to influence political debate “is easier for them to make if we give them money,” Brawley said.

Rep. Jennifer Weiss, a Cary Democrat, said the budget was a continuation of the war on women and is “denying money to an agency that provides critical health services to women and men to prevent unwanted pregnancy.”

Greensboro Republican Rep. John Blust said he was tired of the “war on women” talk, and mentioned a story he read about Planned Parenthood’s willing assistance in “the termination of girl babies.”

He was referring to a video made by the anti-abortion group Live Action that showed a clinic counselor in Austin, Texas, who appeared to be counseling a woman about a sex-selection abortion. According to news reports, Planned Parenthood officials said the worker was not following protocol and is no longer with the organization.

House vs. Senate

House and Senate budget writers have not been working together on the budget as they did last year. The Senate is expected to make significant changes to the House proposal, so the final determination of how tax dollars will be distributed next year is weeks away.

The House budget already demonstrates disinterest in a Senate Republican priority for school changes.

For example, the House budget re-establishes 180 instructional days as the minimum school year, while the Senate education bill would pay for five additional days.

The current budget added five instructional days to the school calendar, but all districts received state exemptions.

The Senate is set to vote on its education bill Thursday.

The House budget sets aside $617,000 in case the legislature decides to give tax breaks to corporations that fund private-school scholarships for low-income students. A bill that would allow the tax breaks was filed this month, but has not been debated in the House or Senate.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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