The N.C. Senate gave preliminary approval to its $22.9 billion budget bill Thursday evening.
In a straight party-line vote, the spending plan passed its second reading 34-15 and will have its third reading at shortly after midnight on Friday.
Debate over the bill lasted several hours and remained civil. But Democratic and Republican lawmakers outlined the sharp philosophical contrast between the ways they view both the budget and the direction of the state.
In a series of prepared remarks, Democratic Senators assailed what they called anemic spending on education, state employee and state retiree pay and benefits and tax cuts that most benefit the wealthy.
“We can’t keep cooking up new schemes for the wealthy if want to meet our potential as a state,” said Sen. Mike Woodard (D-Durham).
Woodard called the debate “a tale of two budgets” – one version crafted by the GOP majority in the Senate and the plan proposed by Gov. Roy Cooper.
The Senate’s spending plan includes an increase in the standard deduction and a small cut to the personal income tax rate, but a much larger cut to the corporate income tax rate.
Woodard called it a “billionaire’s budget” and Sen. Floyd McKissick (D-Durham) condemned it as “fiscally irresponsible.”
Republicans called that overdramatic.
Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell) said there only four billionaires in North Carolina. One of them, Michael Jordan, has a primary residence in Florida because, Hise speculated, that state has no income tax. The Republican strategy of tax cuts, reigned in spending and the building of historic surpluses has created a business environment that will benefit the whole state, Hise said.
“We are going to grow business and we’re going to grow billionaires in this state and keep them,” Hise said. “We won’t take every opportunity to punish success.”
Republican Senators cited North Carolina being chosen as Site Selection Magazine’s number one environment for business and said they have no intention of going back to the “spend it all” method of budgeting under Democratic majorities.
But Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue (D-Raleigh) said that was a mischaracterization of what Democrats want out of the budget. They don’t want to “spend it all” but to make wise investments when the state is in an economic position to do so. That includes investing in the state’s most valuable resource, Blue said – its people and its employees.
Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) said the debate illustrated “a difference in philosophy and approach.” The GOP majority, he said, wants to continue the path that has led the state from deficits to surpluses and allowed them to make strides on things like teacher pay and employee raises – even if those efforts have fallen short of what Democrats would like to see.
Blue said he thinks the average North Carolinian would like to see more investment, not less. The state can’t get there with a budget that benefits corporations over average families, he said.
“We place too much emphasis in this budget on issues regarding people who sit around boardrooms and board tables,” Blue said. “The discussion should be about how we’re affecting people’s conversations around their dinner tables.”
When it wins gets its final approval, the Senate plan will head to the N.C. House where lawmakers said they would like to see a little less austerity and smaller tax cuts.