After months of negotiations and more than nine hours of debate, the state House early Friday approved a $22 billion budget with a surprising show of unity.
About two-thirds of the chamber’s Democrats joined the majority of Republicans to pass the budget bill by an unusually bipartisan margin of 93-23. The naysayers were split between the most conservative and liberal representatives.
When the final vote came at 1:15 a.m., House Speaker Tim Moore had steered his first budget through partisan waters aided by an improving economy in North Carolina and an anticipated $400 million surplus.
“Sounds like the Speaker is leading from the middle – strong bipartisan vote,” Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican, tweeted soon after.
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Going into Thursday, it wasn’t certain that GOP leaders had the votes, even though they hold three-fifths of the seats. A breakaway band of Republican House members was adamant that the plan to increase spending by more than $1 billion over the current level was unacceptable.
Earlier in the week, conservative donor Bob Luddy of Raleigh protested the lack of tax cuts in the proposed budget by shifting his planned $25,000 contribution to the GOP House caucus to the advocacy group Americans for Prosperity.
The budget that leaders took to the floor made some concessions to that pressure, satisfying some House members, but not conceding enough to mollify Americans for Prosperity, which called it “a reverse Robin Hood” plan for its business incentives that are “fleecing the average North Carolina taxpayer.”
Still, the prevailing mood at the end – besides exhaustion – was that extensive spade work ahead of time had cleared the way for widespread agreement, anticipating some internal opposition.
“The speaker had the goal all along that we would have enough Republican votes to pass the budget,” Rep. David Lewis, a Republican from Dunn who is a part of the leadership, said Friday afternoon. “But good policy appeals to a broad spectrum of people. I think we picked up Democrat votes because they agreed with a lot of the premises in the budget.”
Those premises included raising teacher pay 2 to 6 percent, and state employee pay 2 percent and focusing on raises for state troopers and prison guards, he said.
Lewis said Moore’s style has been to encourage that policies be developed from the rank-and-file, which helped build consensus on the budget.
“It’s maybe not as top-down management as we’ve had in the past,” Lewis said. “He lets the process work. Sometimes that means members get upset with each other. It stands to reason those members be allowed to work it out or fight it out. Sometimes tempers flare.”
Moore on Friday afternoon also said working collaboratively with House members had paid off, despite the dissent on the final vote.
“Some like to use the state budget for political purposes,” said Moore, a Kings Mountain Republican. “That’s not our purpose. Our objective is to pay for the things we need, don’t waste the money of our hardworking taxpayers, and take care of our financial obligations."
But the afterglow will be short-lived. The Senate, also controlled by Republicans, will now begin working on its own budget, which could end up having little in common with the House proposal.
“This bill has got to go another step further,” Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat who opposed the budget, said on the House floor Thursday night. “My fear is that, it’s going to come back, if you get 50 percent of what you sent over there, you’re lucky.”
Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Jacksonville and the chief budget writer in the Senate, said Thursday that subcommittee chairs will be given spending targets and start work on Tuesday.
Still, both chambers will have to compromise and send a budget to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who has been more aligned with the House on some of the specifics in the budget such as economic incentives.
Yet the Senate also leans more toward the governor’s proposed smaller increase of 2.3 to 2.5 percent, rather than the 6 percent proposed in the House.
The House budget would spend $22.2 billion next fiscal year, which begins July 1, and $22.4 billion the following year.
It was written to counter criticism that Republicans have been anti-education, by keeping a promise to raise teacher pay. Raises, textbooks and digital learning resources are funded in the plan.
The University of North Carolina system leaders on Friday issued a statement from Jim Holmes, chairman of the Board of Governor’s Public Affairs Committee, saying “House leadership has been very responsive to our budget request and we thank them for delivering the best House budget in years.”
The House budget restores a medical tax deduction whose elimination had provoked an outcry from senior citizens.
It also funds economic development programs the governor has supported, such as historic preservation tax credits, extends renewable energy tax credits and creates a new venture capital fund by investing unclaimed money the state treasurer holds.
Opposition to the budget from the left remained firm.
“We are still near the bottom in per-pupil expenditures and teacher pay,” said Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat. “We are only halfway to where we were three years ago (when budgets were cut). I, for one, am going to vote no.”
Rep. Susan Fisher, an Asheville Democrat, blasted a proposed 30 percent hike in DMV fees. “These are things that continue to put everyday things out of reach for the everyday people in North Carolina,” she said. “My constituents are going to be really surprised to learn about the hidden fees in this budget.”
And Michaux, who led the budget process when his party was in charge, joined in that critique.
“If your (revenue) projections don’t come true, you’re going to have a problem,” Michaux said, adding that he thinks mid-year spending cuts could be needed. “I cannot vote for this budget, because in my book it’s fiscally irresponsible.”
Garrick Brenner, executive director of Progress N.C., issued a statement saying the budget favored tax cuts for corporations at the expense of education. “A 2 percent raise for teachers is a band-aid to a teacher crisis which sees teachers continue to leave North Carolina for better paying jobs in other states,” he said.
Staff writer Colin Campbell contributed.
How Triangle lawmakers voted
There were two major votes, as required by law.
Republicans voting yes: Marilyn Avila, Nelson Dollar, Chris Malone, Gary Pendleton, Paul Stam, David Lewis, Leo Daughtry, Larry Yarbrough.
Democrats voting yes: Gale Adcock, Rosa Gill, Duane Hall, Yvonne Holley, Darren Jackson (yes on second reading/absent on third), William Brisson.
Republicans voting no: Jeff Collins.
Democrats voting no: Grier Martin, Larry Hall, Paul Luebke, H.M. “Mickey” Michaux, Verla Insko, Graig Meyer.
(Republican James Langdon Jr. was an excused absence for both.)