The N.C. House voted 77-40 Wednesday to approve the final compromise budget, despite objections from Democrats that the spending plan includes millions in “pork” projects for mostly Republican districts.
The budget would give teachers an average pay raise of 3.3 percent – weighted toward experienced teachers – in the coming year, and would raise most other state employees’ pay by a flat $1,000. Retired state employees would receive a 1 percent, permanent cost-of-living increase in their pension checks.
The budget would make a series of tax cuts in 2019, reducing the personal income tax rate from 5.499 percent to 5.25 percent and raising the standard deduction – the amount on which people pay no income taxes unless they itemize – to $20,000 for married couples filing jointly from $17,500. It would also lower the corporate income tax rate to 2.5 percent from 3 percent.
Five Democrats joined Republicans in supporting what House Speaker Tim Moore called “a budget that every member of this House should be proud to vote for.” The Senate also took a final 38-11 vote in favor of the budget Wednesday; a final House vote Thursday will send the bill to Gov. Roy Cooper, who’s expected to veto it.
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“We’re giving state employees a raise, we’re taking care of our state retirees, we’re funding critical services, and we’re providing tax reliefs,” Moore said.
But House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson said the budget had an unprecedented amount of “pork” projects, sometimes known as earmarks, funding nonprofit organizations, downtown revitalization and other initiatives – but only in specific communities, many of them represented by Republican legislators.
“You’re the Golden State Warriors of pork, almost undefeated,” Jackson said, referring to the NBA champions. “What would a real conservative like the late Sen. Jesse Helms think?”
A document released by Cooper’s office listed more than 100 specific earmarks in the budget, totaling more than $70 million. House Republican leaders defended the projects as essential for improving rural North Carolina.
“Some people don’t seem to like small projects that help struggling communities,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican and lead budget writer.
Rep. John Blust, a Greensboro Republican, noted that Democrats included many pork projects in their budgets when they controlled the legislature. “My head’s almost spinning at the hypocrisy … that they’re shocked that there’s pork barrel spending,” he said.
Jackson said the earmarks go to worthy causes, but only in specific counties. “You think hospice is important?” he said. “It is in Davidson County, but nowhere else in the state.”
He also criticized $5.78 million in downtown revitalization grants, all of them designated for specific communities. Two of them – Cliffside in Rutherford County and Cleveland in Johnston County – aren’t municipalities and don’t have traditional downtowns. The only retail business in the center of Cliffside is a Dollar General.
“If you aren’t even a town, how do you have a downtown that needs revitalizing?” Jackson said.
Some of the largest earmarks go to Moore’s home in Cleveland County and Senate leader Phil Berger’s Rockingham County: $5 million to the community college in Cleveland County and $2.7 million to purchase 1,100 acres of Wildlife Resources Commission hunting grounds in Rockingham, although Berger said he didn’t request that project.
The budget includes a “raise the age” provision to take 16- and 17-year-olds out of the adult criminal justice system, but there’s a caveat for the $13.2 million juvenile detention facility needed to handle the change: It has to be built in Rockingham County.
Jackson said the location provision could prevent the facility from being built more cheaply elsewhere. Berger, however, defended the provision.
“It needs to be centrally located, and Rockingham is centrally located,” he said, adding that the area has suffered recent job losses and also has inexpensive land prices. “There are some folks who would like everything to be in Wake County, and I don’t know that everything needs to be in Wake County. ... I think it’s a good choice for the state.”
Several of the Democrats who voted for the budget have earmarks headed to their communities. Rep. Howard Hunter’s district gets $80,000 for the Hertford County Recreational Commission. Rep. William Brisson’s district gets $200,000 for training programs at the Bladen County Sheriff’s Department. And Sen. Ben Clark’s district gets $25,000 for the Raeford-Hoke History Museum.
Still, the earmarks proved to be a popular target of Democrats’ budget critiques. Some of them highlighted specific projects on Twitter using the hashtag #SOOEE.
“This budget redirects taxpayer dollars from the basics to reward loyalty,” said Rep. John Ager, a Buncombe County Democrat. “I just find I cannot support a budget that treats North Carolina taxpayers with such disdain.”