Democrats in the state House of Representatives won a couple of Republican allies Thursday during a contentious debate over the legislature's secretive budget process this year.
GOP leaders wrote the budget behind closed doors and, after making it public, are now refusing to allow members of either party to make even small changes.
"I thought maybe I should just go along and not say anything," Republican Rep. John Blust of Greensboro said Thursday in a speech on the House floor that was critical of his party.
However, he said, "sometimes you just have a duty you have to fulfill."
But most Republicans stuck with their party's leadership, and that was enough to shoot down the Democrats' attempt Thursday in the House of Representatives to open up the budget to amendments. This is the first time in modern North Carolina history that legislators have not been able to suggest amendments to the annual budget bill.
Democrats have been outspoken in their anger over that, and on Thursday they found two outspoken allies in Blust and his fellow Republican, Concord Rep. Larry Pittman. Both men have often been a thorn in the side of GOP leadership, and Blust, who has been in the legislature nearly 20 years, already announced he would not seek re-election this November.
In a short speech on the House floor, Pittman said he has been apologizing to Democrats for the way his fellow Republicans have shut them out of the process, although he said he still planned to vote for the budget because he liked a lot of what it contained.
"I want Republicans to be the best we can be," Pittman said. "This process is not the best we can be."
And in a much longer speech — one that was eventually cut off after he exceeded his time limit — Blust lectured his fellow Republicans about the importance of democracy and representative government. He also told the biblical story of how the ancient Israelites were transporting the Ark of the Covenant and, when someone touched it, God struck him dead on the spot.
"People had lost their awe of exactly what it was they were dealing with," Blust said. "And I think that happens to us here. We get so broken down in the operation of this institution we forget what it is we're here for."
He said that throughout most of history, people have not had representative governments. Referencing England's Magna Carta and America's founding fathers, he said the North Carolina General Assembly needs to remember that history.
"This isn't just process," he said. "This is going to the very core of the institution."
Some of the most powerful Republican representatives, however, were not swayed. They defended the budget itself, as well as the process, after Blust and Pittman voiced their criticisms along with numerous Democrats.
"I just have to say, 'Wow,' to some of the things I have heard," said Cary Republican Rep. Nelson Dollar, the top budget writer in the House, who noted the budget's teacher pay raises and other items with bipartisan support.
Harnett County Republican Rep. David Lewis, the chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, said that anyone who complains about not being able to change this year's budget should file a separate bill with their suggested changes. He listed a few things Democrats have spoken about but that he said haven't appeared in new bills.
"If you're going to complain, make sure that you have taken advantage of the process that has been afforded to you," Lewis said. "Otherwise you're a hypocrite."