Editor's Note: The budget cuts reported in this story from May 2017 were restored in the final budget. Read more about what happened.
N.C. Senate Republicans were visibly upset with Democrats for prolonging the budget debate with amendments during an after-midnight session Friday morning.
As the clock approached 1 a.m., Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue was summoned to the front of the chamber to talk privately with Senate leader Phil Berger. The Senate had rejected five amendments from Democrats to fund their spending priorities, but each time one proposal was shot down, another one was filed.
Senate Rules Chairman Bill Rabon abruptly called for a recess, stopping the proceedings for nearly two hours. GOP leaders headed to a conference room with legislative budget staff, while Democrats – some surprised by the lengthy delay – passed the time with an impromptu dance party in the hall.
The session finally resumed around 3 a.m., and Republican Sen. Brent Jackson introduced a new budget amendment that he explained would fund more pilot programs combating the opioid epidemic. He cited “a great deal of discussion” about the need for more opioid treatment funding.
Jackson didn’t mention where the additional $1 million would come from: directly from education programs in Senate Democrats’ districts and other initiatives the minority party sought.
Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram’s rural district in northeastern North Carolina took the biggest hit from the amendment. It strips $316,646 from two early college high schools in Northampton and Washington counties, and it specifically bans state funding from supporting a summer science, math and technology program called Eastern North Carolina STEM.
The Northampton County program has received about $180,000 in recent years to serve 90 high school students, many of whom are African-American and from low-income families.
“I don’t know what motivated the amendment, but it will have a devastating effect on an area that is already suffering,” Smith-Ingram said Saturday, adding that the STEM summer program would shut down if the provision is in the final budget.
She said she thinks the amendment came in response to “miscommunication” between the political parties about Democrats’ amendments.
“The future of children should not be caught up in a political disagreement between members,” she said.
The amendment also changes the counties included in a program that offers stipends to teacher assistants who are working on a college degree to get their teaching licenses.
The funding level for the program didn’t change, but seven counties represented by Smith-Ingram and fellow Democratic Sen. Angela Bryant were removed. Instead, the program will only apply to several counties represented by Republican senators.
Smith-Ingram said the counties removed have the highest teacher turnover rate in the state, and helping teacher assistants become teachers would help address the problem.
Other items cut in the late-night amendment include $200,000 to bring fresh produce to food deserts, $250,000 to fund additional staff for the N.C. Museum of Art’s recently expanded art park and $550,000 for a downtown revitalization program. The only remaining funding for the downtown program is directed to Robeson County, which has a Republican senator.
The amendment also takes a swipe at Gov. Roy Cooper by eliminating a position in his office for a federal legislative programs coordinator. A Cooper spokesman said that position helps secure federal aid for Hurricane Matthew. The state has so far received only $6.1 million of the $900 million Cooper requested to help storm victims.
"Middle of the night budget games are rarely good for North Carolina families,” spokesman Ford Porter said in an email Saturday. “In this case, Senate Republicans chose to cut funding for science and math class, access to fruit and vegetables in rural communities, and staff to work with the federal government to, among other things, bring hurricane recovery funds back to North Carolina. These are the wrong priorities.”
Jackson, the amendment sponsor, could not be reached for comment.
Two Democrats joined Republicans in voting for the amendment, but Smith-Ingram said they didn’t know about the cuts because the vote was taken about a minute after the proposal was released. Sen. Don Davis, a Greene County Democrat, tried to ask a question but wasn’t recognized to speak.
“Nobody knew what they were voting on, it happened so quickly,” Smith-Ingram said.
The time stamp on the vote shows 3:07 a.m., and the final vote on the budget was taken minutes later before the Senate adjourned for the night.
The House will now propose its own budget, and that chamber has in previous years funded programs cut by the Senate, leaving the final funding decisions to be made in negotiations between legislative leaders.
Smith-Ingram said the Senate should bring the amendment back up for another vote. “Procedurally, it appears that there is enough in our rules to come back and reconsider that amendment,” she said. “I’m willing and I’m open to continuing to negotiate with the majority to make sure we right this wrong that occurred.”