On a recent “Domecast,” the state government podcast of the News & Observer and the Insider, we asked legislators who they believed made the best cases for and against the $21.7 billion state budget during the House debate that week.
Based on their answers, we determined that Rep. Darren Jackson, a Raleigh Democrat, and Rep. David Lewis, a Dunn Republican, were the winners for their respective sides. Here’s a synopsis of what they said on the House floor. You can decide who was more right.
Rep. Darren Jackson: Jackson said he knew he would vote against the budget when he saw the bottom line spending number, which was much closer to the Senate’s budget figure than the House’s. The House would have to give up more dollars – and potentially more priorities – in the compromise.
“In the game of chess that is the budget, I knew we were in check,” he said. “We just didn’t know how many moves it was until checkmate.”
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Jackson argued that the Senate should have given state employees 2 percent and teachers 4 percent raises. Instead, he pointed out, the House agreed to the Senate’s $750 bonus, rather than across-the-board increases. (Some employees in targeted areas, including correctional officers, do get raises in the final plan).
Echoing many Democrats, Jackson also complained about the lack of a cost-of-living increase for state retirees, suggesting that House budget negotiators didn’t fight hard enough for that.
Jackson also gave page numbers for what he deemed earmarks of powerful Republican lawmakers inserted into the budget. He mentioned $11 million to construct a middle and high school in Jones County, part of powerful Sen. Harry Brown’s district.
He then came back to what he believed wasn’t adequately funded – pay raises, textbooks, mental health services and the courts.
“We have taken a lot of time. We should at least get this right. Right now, we don’t have it right,” Jackson said. “This is not the best we can do. I’m going to ask you to vote no on the conference report.”
Rep. David Lewis: Lewis’ debate countered many concerns raised by Democrats. He pointed out that the budget gives schools the same amount of money for teacher assistants as last year. And he asked the rhetorical question about “who held the gavel” when reductions in TAs began in Raleigh years ago.
Responding to concerns that further tax cuts included in the budget would hurt the ability to properly fund programs and services, Lewis said the budget would generate an additional $382 million next fiscal year.
He mentioned that starting teacher pay is increased from $33,000 to $35,000 a year. About the lack of a COLA, Lewis said the General Assembly owes the state’s retirees “an honest discussion” about billions of dollars of unfunded liabilities ahead in the pension program.
Responding to criticism that the Senate won budget negotiations, he said: “I’m going to tell you that ain’t the case.” The “responsible” budget fully funds enrollment growth in schools and provides the $750 bonus to employees, he said. Lewis added that for some low-salary employees, the bonus is better than a small raise.
“I’m proud to go back and tell my people that we provided that,” he said.
Lewis acknowledged that the personal and corporate tax cuts in the budget would lead to less revenue for the state than if tax rates went unchanged.
“It ain’t your money,” Lewis said. “It belongs to the taxpayers of this state, and we have made it a commitment to go to a place where we do not penalize those that are trying to work, trying to get ahead, trying to advance.”
Lewis said he believes the budget “funds essential services.”
He ended: “I’m proud of this bill, and I’ll be voting aye and I hope that you will as well.”
The final vote was 81-33, with 11 Democrats joining all Republicans in support of the budget.
Patrick Gannon writes about state government and politics.