The N.C. Senate voted 32-15 early Friday along party lines to approve Republican leaders’ budget proposal for the coming fiscal year.
Senators held an initial 34-15 vote Thursday evening, then returned at 12:05 a.m. Friday to take a final vote, because the chamber’s rules require that the two mandatory votes to pass the bill can’t be taken on the same day.
The first round of debate on the $22.9 billion spending plan lasted for nearly three hours, with Democrats arguing that Gov. Roy Cooper’s $23.4 billion budget would be better for the state because it spends more on education and other priorities and doesn’t include tax cuts.
The Senate budget represents a 2.5 percent increase from the current year that ends in June – about half the size of the spending increase in Cooper’s proposal. The budget calls for teachers to get a pay raise averaging 3.7 percent, while other state employees would see smaller raises: $750 or 1.5 percent of their salary, whichever is greater.
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Senate Republicans’ proposal includes the tax-cut plan that the Senate approved last month, which would reduce the personal income tax rate from 5.499 percent to 5.35 percent while increasing the standard deduction, the base amount of income that isn’t taxed unless a taxpayer chooses itemized deductions. The corporate income tax rate would drop from 3 percent to 2.75 percent in 2018 and to 2.5 percent in 2019.
The Senate GOP has referred to the plan as a “billion-dollar middle-class tax cut,” but Democrats note that it would reduce revenue by hundreds of millions of dollars.
“We cannot meet our core responsibilities as a state if we continue to give away money to corporations and those at the top,” said Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat. “The budget maintains the recession level status quo that has held our state back for the past six years.”
Republicans countered that their budget is a more fiscally responsible approach.
“What the governor’s budget does is basically what a lot of the (Democrats’) budgets did, which was spend it all,” said Sen. Harry Brown, the chamber’s lead budget writer. “I think that philosophy is what created a $3 billion deficit when the recession hit. Teachers got no pay raises for many years because of the philosophy of spend it all.”
Democrats read from prepared remarks comparing Cooper’s budget with the Senate plan, prompting some needling from Republicans, who didn’t use a script for their comments on the floor. “I’d be in favor of increasing the film incentives, because that was a good movie to watch,” said Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Union County Republican.
Before the first vote, Democrats did not propose any amendments to the budget that reflected their concerns. When the Senate returned after midnight, Democrats floated a series of amendments that would add provisions from Cooper’s budget to the Senate plan – in some cases by killing the proposed corporate income tax cut.
The amendments proposed bigger teacher pay raises, a cost-of-living adjustment and funding for broadband internet expansion, among other items. Each amendment was shot down in a 33-15 vote along party lines.
“This is a noble thought, but the numbers just don’t work at this time,” Senate Rules Chairman Bill Rabon said of the broadband amendment.
As Democrats continued to file amendments, Republicans apparently grew frustrated and called for a break until 2:30 a.m. Some senators took naps, while others held an impromptu dance party in the halls of the Legislative Building.
After the break, Sen. Brent Jackson successfully proposed an amendment that funded additional pilot programs to treat opioid addiction, while removing funding for a number of small projects.
“We’ve heard a lot of discussion here tonight on the opioid abuse and how it is truly a national and state ... emergency,” said Jackson, a Sampson County Republican. “We figured we would try to assist in that effort. Based on a great deal of discussion, I think this is something we can all agree on.”
Jackson didn’t mention that the amendment also took funding from several school programs in counties represented by Democrats, as well as eliminating a position in the governor’s office.
Jackson’s amended passed 34-13 and the Senate then took its final budget vote shortly after 3 a.m. Friday.
Before the first budget vote, most of the amendments were minor, with the exception of one dealing with funding for medication to combat opioid overdoses.
Sen. Louis Pate, a Mount Olive Republican, got unanimous support for his amendment adding $100,000 to pay for naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. “It does save lives, and it needs to be out there readily available to our law enforcement personnel so they can use it to bring back a person who has overdosed,” he said.
The budget will now go to the House, where Republican leaders plan to unveil a separate proposal in the coming weeks.