Under the Dome

SUNDAY DOME: Senate budget writers sharpening knives

Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Jacksonville, is one of the key budget writers in the chamber.
Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Jacksonville, is one of the key budget writers in the chamber. cseward@newsobserver.com

Leaders in the state Senate will be busy by the end of this week drafting their budget proposal, which is expected to feature less spending than the $22.2 billion spelled out in the recently adopted House budget plan.

The House plan has been blasted by some conservatives, who say its roughly 5 percent increase in state spending levels is too much. That critique is being heard in the Senate, where Sen. Harry Brown – a Jacksonville Republican and a top budget writer – says a 2.5 percent to 3 percent increase is more likely.

Boil it down: The Senate is likely to outline a spending plan with about $500 million less than what the House just passed.

That difference will set up a major debate on spending priorities through the next month – and perhaps longer.

“We have tried to control the growth of government, and I think we’ll continue to do that on the Senate side,” Brown said.

Senate budget subcommittees met briefly last week and took in their marching orders, receiving spending target numbers for education, health and human services, and public safety that are lower than what the House passed earlier this month.

The Senate also released a schedule that includes a plan to take budget votes on June 10 and June 11. “I think the safe thing to say is sometime in the middle of June we’ll have this thing done,” Brown said.

He is speaking, of course, about just the Senate. It would then enter negotiations between both chambers and ultimately go to Gov. Pat McCrory, who has been pushing for the lawmakers to fund a range of ideas – and has said his veto stamp is getting warm.

McCrory issued two vetoes late last week.

Ahead in the Senate

In an interview, Brown spotlighted for Dome several key differences between the House budget and the Senate’s priorities. The House directed $200 million to the state’s savings fund, which would bring its total to $851 million.

“I think we have a goal of putting over $1 billion in that fund,” he said.

House Republicans also faced criticism the budget didn’t include new income tax cuts. Brown says “you may see something in that area” in the Senate plan.

Setting aside money for Medicaid reform is also a priority, he said.

The House budget would transfer $4.66 million from the highway fund for other purposes in the next fiscal year. Senate budget documents call for cutting highway fund money for tourism guides and the UNC Center for Alcohol Studies.

The spending targets released at budget subcommittees last week show a range of decreases from total amounts budgeted in the House: 4.7 percent less for courts and public safety, 4.9 percent less for public schools, 2.9 percent less for the university system and 0.3 percent less for health and human services.

The details of how the Senate would actually spend the money are not yet public.

Before the House vote was final, budget writers there eliminated a research and development tax credit and they reduced from $60 million to $40 million the amount in a grant fund to be offered to lure film productions to the state. The goal was to draw support from some conservative legislators concerned about spending levels. The Senate is expected to cut deeper.

Senators are focused most of all on the spending, zeroing in on the $22.2 billion final number in the House plan.

How big of a spending increase is that? It depends.

It represents a 5.1 percent increase in year-over-year spending.

But the House final plan would spend more than just that. Two other spending items are in the House plan but would be funded with part of this year’s $400 million surplus: The $40 million for films and $200 million for repairs and renovations of state facilities. Because those items will be paid for with the surplus, they aren’t included in the $22.16 billion total.

But, add those in, and the state would spend about 6.2 percent more in the next budget year than in the one that is about to end on June 30. That’s under the House version.

Brown said senators want – and will work to make – that number much lower.

Colin Campbell

McCrory’s vetoes

Senate Bill 2

Gov. Pat McCrory issued the following message in vetoing on Thursday Senate Bill 2, an act that would allow magistrates to opt out of performing marriages:

“I recognize that for many North Carolinians, including myself, opinions on same-sex marriage come from sincerely held religious beliefs that marriage is between a man and a woman. However, we are a nation and a state of laws. Whether it is the president, governor, mayor, a law enforcement officer, or magistrate, no public official who voluntarily swears to support and defend the Constitution and to discharge all duties of their office should be exempt from upholding that oath; therefore, I will veto Senate Bill 2.”

House Bill 405

Gov. Pat McCrory issued the following message in vetoing on Friday House Bill 405, an act described by critics as an “ag-gag” bill:

“This bill is intended to address a valid concern of our state’s businesses – how to discourage those bad actors who seek employment with the intent to engage in corporate espionage or act as an undercover investigator. This practice is unethical and unfair to employers, and is a particular problem for our agricultural industry. It needs to be stopped.

“While I support the purpose of this bill, I believe it does not adequately protect or give clear guidance to honest employees who uncover criminal activity. I am concerned that subjecting these employees to potential civil penalties will create an environment that discourages them from reporting illegal activities.

“Earlier this week, I was proud to sign Burt’s Law. It requires adult care home employees who witness sexual abuse of patients to report it to the proper authorities. I signed Burt’s Law because it protects a vulnerable population and gives clear direction to employees to report any abuse they witness. I don’t want to discourage good employees of any industry from reporting illegal activities to the proper authorities, which is why I am vetoing House Bill 405. In good conscience, I cannot sign Burt’s Law and then in the same week turnaround and sign contradictory legislation.

“I encourage the General Assembly to reconsider this bill as soon as possible and add protections for those employees who report illegal activities directly and confidentially to the proper authorities. I stand ready to work with legislators during this process, and I am very optimistic that we can reach a solution that addresses the concerns of our North Carolina employers while still protecting honest employees.”