Spending plan expected to be released next Tuesday or Wednesday
As the N.C. House puts together its budget this week, the same thought is on the minds of representatives from both parties.
“It looks like we’re going to have to clean up the Senate’s mess again,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford). “The way it usually works now is that the Senate budget is the low bar, the House budget is more reasonable and we’ll end up somewhere in the middle.”
Though few Republican House members want to go on record criticizing their GOP colleagues in the Senate, privately several of them came to the same conclusion in discussions this week.
It would be hard not to, they said, given how the Senate budget process ended.
When the final Senate budget vote was taken last Friday, it was just after 3 a.m.
Debate over the budget, crafted without input from the public or the Democratic minority, had been tense since a proposed draft was released late Tuesday night. But when Democratic Senators made a series of late night amendment attempts, the GOP majority decided they’d had enough.
After a two hour recess the Republicans came back with an amendment of their own: one that stripped funding from various Democratic initiatives, including education funding from Democratic senators’ districts.
“It was not our finest hour, as the Senate, at 3 a.m.,” said Senator Erica Smith-Ingram (D-Northhampton). “It happened so quickly that a lot of people didn’t even have an idea of the magnitude of what they were voting for.”
Smith-Ingram’s eastern North Carolina district was hit hardest, with two early college high schools in Washington and Northhampton counties stripped of $316,646. The amendment also prevents the state from funding Eastern North Carolina STEM, a summer science and math program.
The program serves a largely rural, black population.
“It’s really tragic the education of children got caught up in an ego match,” Smith-Ingram said. “We were just trying to advocate for our districts, for our issues. It doesn’t make sense for that to be punished.”
“In my area, the issue that is killing our communities is the lack of education that’s leading to a lack of workforce that would lead to businesses locating in or staying in Eastern North Carolina,” Smith-Ingram said.
The cuts went beyond just Smith-Ingram’s district – striking at Democratic priorities all over the state.
One such casualty: $200,000 in funding for programs to bring fresh produce to food deserts.
Another: $550,000 for downtown revitalizations – a cut that missed only Robeson County, which is represented by a GOP Senator.
Gone too was $250,000 in funding for more staff at the N.C. Museum of Art’s newly expanded art park and all funding for the federal legislative programs coordinator in Gov. Roy Cooper’s office. Among that staffer’s duties: securing federal aid for disasters like Hurricane Matthew.
Smith-Ingram said she’s since talked with colleagues from both parties and it’s generally agreed funding for many of these areas need to be restored in the final budget.
“I think calmer minds have prevailed and we have some very strong commitments to righting some of these wrongs,” Smith-Ingram said. “I’ve been talking with leadership and I’ve been very optimistic about their responses.”
Harrison said that’s not uncommon – even if this year’s dramatic late-night jabs were beyond the norm.
“I think what will happen is what usually happens – these items will be in controversy and eligible and will be called out in conference,” Harrison said. “Some of this is done for bargaining – the House doesn’t like to make policy with the budget and the Senate does. I hate to play politics with the budget, but that’s what happens – it happened under Democratic control, too.”
Under GOP control it’s gotten worse, Harrison said.
“I haven’t been able to vote for a single budget since the Republicans took control,” Harrison said. “But usually the House version is much more reasonable and I think that will be the case again this year.”
Among the changes Harrison expects: a smaller tax break and more pay and retirement benefits for teachers and state employees.
“The House does seem to be the more populist of the two chambers,” Harrison said. “The Senate budgets always seem to favor the wealthy while the broad majority of the House seems to realize there are essential government services that we have to preserve, and we have to take care of our teachers and state employees.”
The Senate version of the budget provides no cost of living increase for state retirees and eliminates retirement health benefits for state employees hired after 2018 – moves that many Democrats have said is demoralizing for existing state employees and hurts when recruiting new state employees.
It all usually gets decided in compromises over the last two weeks of the session, Harrison said – which could come as early as next month, this time around.
“There is always a back and forth between the two chambers,” Harrison said. “That’s normal. But the real problem is that these budgets get made behind closed doors, without input from the public, no transparency.”
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