Politics & Government

Democrats’ attempts to change budget were cut off — along with a microphone

NC Senate presents budget proposal highlights

Republican senators Harry Brown and Brent Jackson read and explained their budget proposals to the media at the General Assembly on Tuesday, May 28, 2019. The House and Senate are calling for different raises for teachers and other state employees.
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Republican senators Harry Brown and Brent Jackson read and explained their budget proposals to the media at the General Assembly on Tuesday, May 28, 2019. The House and Senate are calling for different raises for teachers and other state employees.

Updated May 31 with developments.

The proposed state Senate budget was written by those who control the chamber: Republicans. So when it came time to debate the budget on Thursday, Democrats didn’t have the votes to change it on their own.

They could end up with a say over the final budget if Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper uses his veto. But for now, all they could do was propose amendments that failed.

Four hours into the sometimes contentious budget debate, Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican, cut off the microphone of Sen. Terry Van Duyn, a Buncombe County Democrat, who had continued speaking after Berger said she was out of order. She asked to suspend the rules, which was not granted. Berger said in 10 years presiding, he had not done that before.

Van Duyn later tweeted that she “was just ruled out of order while introducing my amendment to the Senate Budget to expand Medicaid in North Carolina. Some things are worth fighting for and insurance for the 500,000 North Carolinians without health care is one of them.”

On Friday, Sen. Bill Rabon, a Southport Republican and Senate rules chairman, issued a statement calling Berger’s action an “appropriate and necessary” last resort to Van Duyn’s breach of rules and decorum.

In the same statement, Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, a Democrat, defended Berger.

“The presiding officer of the Senate has the burden and responsibility to maintain decorum and order within the chamber. I believe Senator Berger has consistently used his best [judgment] to uphold that responsibility and apply the rules of the chamber fairly. That remains true today,” Blue said.

Regional attacks?

Some of the debate was impassioned, as when Sen. Don Davis, a Democrat, said he’s convinced that Eastern North Carolina is “under attack” because of cuts to funding for Vidant Health in Greenville. Republicans said the cuts were a natural response to the hospital’s attempt to remove the state’s influence from the hospital’s Board of Trustees.

Meanwhile, Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat, tried to drop the Senate budget’s call to relocate the Department of Health and Human Services — about 2,000 state employees — from Dix Park in Raleigh to Granville County.

That amendment failed, but he called out the move for the kind of commutes it would bring for residents who work further from Granville than Raleigh.

“Might as well name it ‘Relocating Raleigh,’” Chaudhuri said. He said the transfer is not based on planning or logic, but politics.

“Remember hardworking people who can’t spend hours on the road. Let’s not let our people down,” Chaudhuri said.

Sen. Ralph Hise, a Spruce Pine Republican who serves on the Senate’s HHS appropriations committee, said this week that Granville County has a lower cost of living for employees and lower costs associated with operations instead of staying in Raleigh.

“There are great benefits from moving state complexes out,” he said.

Crisis pregnancy centers

Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, objected to the budget giving millions of dollars in funding to crisis pregnancy centers.

The House budget also provides funding for a crisis pregnancy center. The centers are supported by anti-abortion groups and encourage women to keep their pregnancies, but are also criticized for providing misinformation.

Marcus said the state should not use taxpayer money to “push a conservative, religious set of beliefs.” She called them fake clinics and a threat to reproductive freedom.

Her amendment would move the money to women’s health programs. She said none of it would go to abortions.

Hise said the centers are an “incredible investment.”

Marcus’ amendment was defeated.

‘A dastardly thing’

Sen. Paul Lowe Jr., a Forsyth County Democrat, wanted to restore three positions in the office of newly appointed NC Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley that would be eliminated under the Senate budget. She is the first African American woman to hold the position, and a Democrat.

“I think it’s a dastardly thing. We’ve got our first African American female chief justice,” he said. Lowe said taking away positions from her office now seems morally wrong.

“I’m just going to leave it there because I’m getting really emotional,” Lowe said. “The last thing I want to do is cuss in this chamber, but it’s wrong.”

Lowe’s attempt failed, but on Friday, Republicans reversed course.

As lawmakers returned to take a final vote on the budget, Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican, introduced a similar amendment to restore the positions. Britt said overnight lawmakers had conversations with court officials that cleared up some confusion on the staffing.

When Senate budget writers were putting together the budget, the three positions that were eliminated were vacant, Britt said. Since then, however, the positions had been filled.

“This had nothing to do with party,” Britt said. Britt’s amendment passed the chamber unanimously.

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Senators approved the budget with votes Thursday and Friday. Now the Senate and the House start their own budget negotiations before they send a final budget to Cooper.

Lauren Horsch of the NC Insider contributed to this report.
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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.