After 75 minutes of debate and less than a day after the $21.74 billion spending plan became public, the N.C. Senate voted 33-16 Tuesday to back the budget compromise over objections from Democrats who said they need more time.
The Senate will take a final vote on Wednesday. The House will take its final vote at 12:01 a.m. Friday. Both chambers face a Friday deadline to pass a budget – and get Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature – or extend the temporary budget that has kept state government running since July 1, when last year’s budget expired.
All Senate Republicans voted in favor of the budget Tuesday, and all Democrats voted no. Many of the minority party senators said they didn’t have enough time to review the 429-page bill, which was posted online at 11:30 p.m. Monday.
“If you can tell, I haven’t shaved today, and it’s because I was in my office all night trying to read this,” said Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat. He questioned the quick vote, noting that the budget is now more than 10 weeks late.
“Folks, the only part of this process that you’ve rushed is the part that involves transparency,” he said. “You’ve abandoned your obligation to them. When it comes to respect for the voters, this is about as bad as it gets.”
But Senate leader Phil Berger said legislators and the public, including Democrats, have had plenty of time to weigh in during months of budget development and negotiations. Republicans said the majority of the budget provisions appeared in either the House or Senate budget bills months ago.
“We’ve heard criticism of how long this has taken, and it’s time to get this done,” Berger said at the conclusion of Tuesday’s debate. “We’ve now converted from ‘why haven’t you gotten this done?’ to ‘why are you going so fast?’ ”
Berger said the budget reflects the legislature’s priorities: more funding for education, additional tax cuts and conservative budgeting that will put more money in the state’s rainy-day fund.
“What we’re dealing with here are some big issues that have been nagging at us for a number of years,” he said.
Democrats painted a different picture of the budget, saying it failed to adequately pay for teachers and education while offering hefty income tax cuts to wealthy people and large corporations.
“I still believe that it shifts the tax burden to North Carolina’s working families,” Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue said. “When you raise motor vehicle fees by $200 million, I know that the average working person out there is going to pay more to drive their car next year. … I’m still convinced that we have a budget that goes in the wrong direction.”
Senate leaders pointed to examples of education improvements in the budget. Teachers will see their starting pay increase from $33,000 to $35,000 a year, and they’ll receive “step” increases based on their years of service. Budget writer Harry Brown also noted that the budget calls for smaller class sizes in first grade, “a step research has repeatedly shown is key to academic success.”
“This was a long process, and I just think if you look at the good in this budget, it’s hard to argue against this budget,” Brown said.
Some Democrats said the budget compromise appears to be better than the original Senate budget, which passed along party lines in June.
“I think you guys went back to the drawing board, and there were some improvements,” said Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, a Northampton County Democrat. “There are many fixes in this budget, and we’re doing some good things for education. But as a teacher, I don’t think we’re doing enough.”
Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca, however, suggested that more funding isn’t necessarily the answer. “Money doesn’t fix problems. People fix problems, and we are blessed to have some of the best teachers in the country here,” he said.
Apodaca also touted the budget’s funding for elementary school teacher assistants. The original Senate budget would have cut 5,000 TAs to instead hire more teachers and reduce class sizes, but the House wanted to fund assistants at last year’s level.
“We fixed teacher assistants, and we made sure teacher assistants are funded on a recurring basis so we don’t have to hear that argument every year,” Apodaca said.
House won’t fast-track budget vote
The N.C. House will take its final vote on the budget compromise at 12:01 a.m. Friday after legislators rejected an attempt to hold the vote a day earlier.
Under House rules, the budget bill must be publicly available for at least three days before the first vote. Because it was posted online at 11:30 a.m. Monday, the vote must wait until Thursday. The Senate has no such rule and scheduled its first vote for Tuesday afternoon.
House Rules Chairman David Lewis said Monday that he was interested in suspending the rules to allow an earlier vote. But he said Republicans would only do it if House Democratic Leader Larry Hall didn’t object.
Hall did oppose the move, saying legislators need more time to review the budget, but fellow Democratic Rep. Elmer Floyd of Fayetteville made a motion on the floor Tuesday to speed up the process.
Suspending the House rules requires a two-thirds majority vote, so Floyd’s motion failed 62-41.
House Majority Leader Mike Hager said voting a day earlier would still allow legislators to read the 429-page budget bill. “I think it’s ample time,” he said. “I think our folks want it to be efficient and be effective.”
Others pointed out that a midnight vote Friday morning would give Gov. Pat McCrory just hours to sign the bill before the current temporary budget expires Friday night. If he vetoed the budget or didn’t sign quickly, lawmakers would need to extend the temporary budget by day’s end or much of state government would shut down.
Hall – along with a number of Democrats and Republicans – disagreed. “We have not as a caucus had a chance to have a full briefing from legislative staff, and certainly we like to know what we’re voting for or against,” he said. “We would be committing borderline legislative malpractice.”
Hall was joined in opposition by Republican Rep. Michael Speciale of New Bern, one of the chamber’s most conservative members.
“I need time to read it, and you need time to read it,” Speciale said. “We’ve been here eight months; one more day is not going to make a difference.”