State Politics

Democrats blast Senate budget’s employee pay, school vouchers before 33-15 vote

Republican Senate leader Phil Berger, left, Majority Leader Harry Brown, center and Democratic Sen. Floyd McKissick on Tuesday, February 16, 2016 at the N.C. General Assembly. McKissick objected to elements of the budget developed by Berger and Brown.
Republican Senate leader Phil Berger, left, Majority Leader Harry Brown, center and Democratic Sen. Floyd McKissick on Tuesday, February 16, 2016 at the N.C. General Assembly. McKissick objected to elements of the budget developed by Berger and Brown. clowenst@newsobserver.com

Democrats sought unsuccessfully Thursday to add bigger raises for state employees and retirees and to cut private school vouchers from the Senate budget before it passed 33-15 along party lines.

The Senate’s $22.2 billion budget features a faster income tax cut, bigger teacher raises and smaller state-employee raises than the spending plan the House approved last month. A final Senate vote was held at 12:05 a.m. Friday – with a 26-13 tally due to absences – and now the House and Senate will begin budget negotiations.

Democrats said the budget puts too much in the state’s rainy day fund – $583 million – instead of providing 2 percent raises for state employees and a cost-of-living increase for retirees. The House budget includes a 1.6 percent increase for retired state workers.

Sen. Joyce Waddell, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, noted that retirees haven’t received an increase since 2009.

“Some of them are having to eat cat food as a means of their meals,” she said. “The average pension plan for retirees is just $20,000. That is not enough. This is not good business.”

Republicans point to data indicating that the House’s raise for retirees would add $667 million to the pension fund’s liability over 12 years.

Senate budget writer Harry Brown, a Republican from Jacksonville, said the pension fund needs to be secure.

“Look at Detroit and what’s happened to their retirement plan,” he said. “I don’t think any of us want to put our retirees in that situation.”

The N.C. Retired Governmental Employees’ Association has called the House plan for retirees “a step in the right direction,” but says the state needs to do more to keep pace with inflation.

The Senate budget directs the biggest raises to teachers, with some getting raises as high as 7.5 percent. The highest teacher raises in the House plan are 5 percent. But while the House includes a 2 percent raise for all state employees, the Senate plan calls for merit raises averaging 1 percent and merit bonuses averaging 1 percent.

Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, a Northampton County Democrat, proposed an amendment to enlarge state employee raises and include the retiree cost-of-living increase from the House budget.

Referring to Gov. Pat McCrory’s “Carolina Comeback” slogan, Smith-Ingram said that “it isn’t a comeback if it doesn’t include state employees – all of them – who provide a public service.”

Senate leaders used a procedural maneuver to avoid taking a vote on Smith-Ingram’s proposal. Senate leader Phil Berger said merit raises are a better approach because some state government salaries aren’t keeping pace with similar jobs in the private sector.

“We’ve targeted that money to make sure that the earnings schedules in state government are competitive so we can keep those best employees,” he said.

Republicans used the same procedural maneuver to avoid voting on Sen. Floyd McKissick’s proposal to divert $34.8 million in funding for private-school vouchers to instead fund public-school textbook and technology needs.

The vouchers, known as “Opportunity Scholarships,” would serve an additional 2,000 students per year starting in 2017 under the Senate budget. The budget also calls for the voucher program’s budget to increase by $10 million each year through 2027, when it would receive $145 million.

When Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca killed the amendment, Durham Democrat McKissick asked him to reconsider “so we can get on the record the position of people in this chamber when it comes to adequately funding our textbooks and technology.”

Apodaca’s reply: “Nah, we’re good.”

Brown later elaborated on Republicans’ support for the voucher program. “If you’ve got a kid that’s a special needs kid, and public schools just can’t offer the resources they need, don’t you think a scholarship would make sense for that kid?” Brown asked. “Sometimes I think we forget that we protect everybody else, but we don’t protect the kid.”

With a version of the budget now approved by both the Senate and House, legislative leaders will begin hashing out a compromise in closed-door meetings. They’ve said they hope to finish – and end the legislative session – by the end of the month.

During the negotiations, some spending items are likely to be cut, and some projects might emerge that didn’t appear in either chamber’s budget.

“I’m sure it will change six ways from Sunday before it’s a final piece of work,” said Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter

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