The state House gave preliminary approval to its $25.7 billion budget proposal Wednesday night, with House Speaker Tim Moore taking the unusual step of leaving the podium to debate from the floor and appeal for Democratic votes.
Republican legislators raved about the funding for local and university construction projects, teacher and state employee raises, and broadband expansion.
Moore argued that strong bipartisan support for the budget would strengthen his position when the House starts negotiations with the Senate. The Senate’s version of the budget is substantially different from the House plan.
“This is spending as much money as we’ve ever spent, just not spending every dime with nothing left,” Moore said. “This budget strikes that balance.”
The budget passed 72-41, with nine Democrats voting with Republicans. The House will take a final vote on the budget Thursday and send it back to the Senate.
At a news conference before the vote, House Democrats who opposed the budget said it misses the chance to bring significant and long-lasting improvements to the state by offering health insurance to more people, making court-ordered improvements to education, and protecting state assets from climate change threats.
House Democrats did not have a say how the budget would be structured, said Democratic Leader Robert Reives. Though individual members were able to request items be included in the plan, Democrats didn’t see the budget until it was made public, said Reives, a Chatham County Democrat.
During the budget debate, Rep. Amber Baker, a Forsyth Democrat, rejected Moore’s argument that Democrats should accept what they’ve been given.
“To shove it down our throats simply because you wrote it and you’re telling me it’s good, that’s not the way to do things,” she said.
House Democrats said legislators from their party and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper should be included in upcoming budget negotiations.
North Carolina entered budget-writing season with more than $6 billion sitting unspent, largely because the Republican legislature and Cooper failed to agree on a comprehensive budget in the last two years. In mid-June, economists in the state budget office and the legislature projected the state will take in $6.5 billion more than expected in tax revenue through fiscal year 2023. The federal American Rescue Plan is pumping more than $4 billion into the state.
Rep. Brandon Lofton, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, tried to offer a 111-page budget amendment, but it was ruled out of order. He included in the amendment up to eight weeks of paid parental leave for all state employees with newborns or adopted children; $1,500 in “catch-up bonuses” for teachers, who have gone two years without raises; 5% cost-of-living adjustments for state retirees, and Medicaid expansion.
Lofton said the state could afford to do all this and still put billions into savings.
“When we have the ability to do better, we must do better,” he said.
Neither the House nor Senate proposed budgets include Medicaid expansion, which would allow low-income adults who don’t make enough money to qualify for tax credits under the Affordable Care Act to enroll in the government insurance program. Medicaid expansion is a top priority for Cooper and Democrats in the legislature.
Democrats argued that the budget does not pay for education programs outlined in the consent decree in the long-running Leandro court case on the state’s constitutional obligations to offer students a sound basic education.
Rep. Jeff Elmore, a North Wilkesboro Republican, said items in the budget that address the consent degree are being overlooked.
The state is focused on improving reading in early grades, he said, and the budget includes teacher recruitment plans and help for rural districts. “This is unprecedented spending that we haven’t seen before,” Elmore said.
The budget fails to invest in clean energy projects or combat the effects of climate change that threaten farmland and beaches, said Rep. Terry Brown, a Mecklenburg County Democrat. Tourism and agriculture depend on environmental sustainability, he said at the news conference.
“This budget does nothing to secure a clean, renewable, forward-thinking environment for our state,” he said. “We should take this opportunity to invest in transformational projects that will position us to be a leader on green jobs and clean energy like so many of our business partners are doing when they move into North Carolina.”