State Politics

Berger defends 3 a.m. budget changes that cut education in Democrats’ districts

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, takes questions from reporters as the Senate's budget proposal is presented during a press conference on Tuesday, May 9, 2017.
Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, takes questions from reporters as the Senate's budget proposal is presented during a press conference on Tuesday, May 9, 2017.

N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger is defending Republican legislators’ controversial 3 a.m. move to strip funding from several education programs in counties represented by Democrats. He argues that the change was necessary to address the state’s opioid epidemic without raising taxes.

The budget amendment was passed moments after it was introduced early Friday morning, following a two-hour Senate recess called when GOP leaders became visibly upset with Democrats for prolonging the budget debate with amendments.

The amendment added about $1 million to programs addressing opioid addiction. The extra money came from cuts to two early college high schools in rural northeastern North Carolina and a summer science, math and technology program for disadvantaged high school students. The amendment also cut a position in the governor’s office and eliminated funding for a program that provides fresh produce in food deserts.

The move made national headlines and prompted criticism from Democrats, who say the amendment was an attempt to retaliate against them.

On Tuesday, Berger issued a statement about the amendment – his first public comment on the issue.

“This amendment helped address, without raising taxes, the opioid crisis that Sen. (Paul) Lowe tried to address with a large tax increase in his amendment,” Berger said in an email.

Lowe’s amendment, which was rejected, would have added about $15 million for opioid treatment programs – a proposal from Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget – by scaling back the Senate’s proposed personal income tax cut.

Under the proposal from Lowe, a Democrat from Forsyth County, the reduction in the personal income tax rate from 5.499 percent to 5.35 percent wouldn’t apply to higher income taxpayers. For example, married couples filing jointly and earning more than $1 million annually would continue to pay the 5.499 percent rate, while those earning less would may 5.35 percent.

The Senate voted 33-15 along party lines to table Lowe’s amendment, which meant it would not get a formal vote.

On Tuesday, the N.C. Democratic Party said the Senate budget doesn’t adequately address the opioid crisis, highlighting statistics showing a 73 percent increase in opioid-related deaths since 2005.

“Because Senate Republicans decided to prioritize tax cuts to the wealthy, they had to cut children’s education funding to make up for the fact that their budget neglected opioid funding,” Democratic Party executive director Kimberly Reynolds said in a news release. “Senate Republicans have made their priorities perfectly clear, and voters will not forget.”

While the original Senate budget only funded an opioid program in Wilmington, the last-minute amendment added programs in Jacksonville, Hickory and in Gaston, Moore, Mitchell and Watauga counties. All of those communities are represented by Republican senators.

The programs cut in the Senate budget could find a reprieve in the House budget, which is expected to be released in about two weeks.

House education budget chairs did not respond to requests for comment about the Senate’s cuts Tuesday, but one of them, Republican Rep. Craig Horn of Union County, voiced concern about the cuts to the summer program Eastern North Carolina STEM.

Horn was one of several lawmakers who toured the program last summer. “It’s incredible to me ... that that would have been taken,” he told EducationNC.

Also Tuesday, Berger disputed Democrats’ claims that Sen. Don Davis of Greene County had sought Friday to ask a question about the budget amendment but wasn’t recognized. Berger said that Davis was “recognized immediately upon his request to speak,” but that the request came after the amendment vote – at which point Davis declined to ask a question.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter