The strong bipartisan vote in favor of the state House budget showed three things: The 120-member chamber is becoming slightly more moderate, Republicans are yielding a little ground to Democrats, and Democrats are willing to go along as long as they are thrown a bone or two in the process.
The tally also showed that the House budget for 2015-17 includes so much new spending – about $1 billion worth – and so few cuts that it would have been hard for anyone aside from hardline conservatives and liberals to vote against it.
On its final vote, the House approved the $22 billion spending plan 93-23. Eleven of the most conservative Republicans and 12 of the most liberal Democrats voted no. That means 32 Democrats liked the Republican-penned document enough to push the green button.
Rep. Rodney Moore, D-Mecklenburg, was among them. He said the day before that it was the best plan he’d seen from Republicans since they took control of the General Assembly in 2011. Moore said he supported the raises for teachers and state employees and the cost-of-living adjustment for state retirees.
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During the debate, several Democrat-sponsored amendments were approved by the full House. In a few of those cases, the amendment sponsors, who might otherwise have voted no, went on to vote for the budget.
But the more likely reason the budget received so much support is that it includes something for just about everybody and doesn't make any drastic cuts to programs or services. State employees’ groups are happy because of the aforementioned pay increases, along with 40 bonus hours of bankable leave time. Retirees get a 2-percent bump. A UNC system official called it the “best House budget in years.” And despite criticism from the left that the budget doesn’t do enough to restore cuts made to public education in recent years, most legislators seemed OK with the education spending.
Most dissent came from conservative advocacy groups, such Americans for Prosperity-North Carolina. It argued that the plan is “fiscally irresponsible” and that various economic-incentives programs paid for in the budget amount to a “reverse Robin Hood.”
The incentives, plus a proposed 50-percent increase in Division of Motor Vehicles fees, led to spirited debates among House Republicans in private leading up to the final vote. The DMV fee increases were reduced to 30 percent, while a couple of incentives programs were eliminated or scaled back in the final version.
The House vote is an early step in the long process that results in a state spending plan for the next two fiscal years. The Senate will write its own budget next, then the two chambers will work on a compromise to send to Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk.
Senate leaders have indicated their budget won’t be as friendly. It will be interesting to see whether House leaders who negotiate the final budget with their Senate counterparts will be able to keep House Democrats satisfied enough to push the green button again.
And whether the 11 conservative House members who voted against their chamber’s budget might like the Senate's ideas a little more.
Patrick Gannon writes about state government and politics.