RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina Republicans advanced next year’s state budget adjustments Tuesday, betting on agreed-to pay raises, tax cuts and school safety improvements to assure electoral success against Democrats in November.
The $23.9 billion agreement, reached after weeks of private talks between House and Senate GOP negotiators, continued down the fast track with committee debate. Floor votes on the bill are expected later this week before it goes to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk.
Cooper and fellow Democratic legislators have signaled opposition to the measure. They said GOP legislators could have done better on teacher pay and school security spending if they hadn’t continued a multiyear effort to slash corporate tax rates and individual tax rates.
The measure containing the budget changes keeps in place similar tax cuts to begin in 2019. Also included are benefits from more than $600 million in additional revenue collections through mid-2019, thanks to a growing economy.
The Democratic critique sets up the same likely sequence from a year ago, when Cooper vetoed the two-year budget and Republicans used their veto-proof majorities to quickly override him. This year’s showdown focuses on changes to the second year of the budget, which begins July 1. But it comes during an election year in which Republicans are bracing to protect their seat advantages against energized Democrats.
Democrats are even angrier because Republicans are using a parliamentary process that prevents lawmakers from offering any budget amendments — something that hasn’t happened since at least the early 1970s. The prohibition helps Republicans avoid votes on issues that could end up in fall campaign advertisements by Democratic challengers.
“It’s unambiguous that the driving force behind this abusive process is so that their vulnerable members don’t have to show any sort of political courage by taking tough votes on amendments,” said Rep. Grier Martin, a Wake County Democrat, adding that in the budget “we’re finding lots of very troubling provisions.”
The up-or-down votes on the bill mean Democrats would have to reject proposed 6.5 percent average teacher pay raises this fall by voting no. The amount is slightly higher than the 6.2 percent previously approved for the coming year but lower that Cooper’s 8 percent average proposal. Cooper joined the 20,000 teachers who rallied at the Legislative Building on the session’s first day two weeks ago seeking more salaries and public education funds.
Democratic lawmakers also would have to explain why they declined to support a budget that also would raise salaries for thousands of low-income state employees to $31,200, the equivalent of a $15 per hour “living wage.”
“We tried to take most of the new money that was available to us and put it into needed salaried positions,” said Rep. Donny Lambeth, a Forsyth County Republican and a top budget-writer. “I think that’s the primary reason why people should support it.”
Most other workers would get 2 percent increases in the agreement, with correctional officers (average 4 percent increase) and state troopers (average 8 percent) getting more. With an eye toward recruitment, new programs would be created to provide forgivable education loans for the Highway Patrol and criminal justice fields. And there’s $15 million for security upgrades within state prisons. Five correctional officers and staff died in prison attacks last year, including four in Pasquotank County.
As previously announced, the agreement contains $35 million to address school safety and student support personnel following the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead.
Cooper had requested $130 million, half of which would go to building security upgrades for K-12 schools and on University of North Carolina and community college campuses. Republicans have said more money was expected in future years, including as much as $90 million in Medicaid funds to address behavioral and other health needs.
Other key items in the agreement include a previously announced proposal to expand tax breaks to lure companies that create thousands of jobs in North Carolina. It could be attractive to a company like Apple, which is strongly considering the state for a new corporate campus.
There’s also $12 million to address unregulated industrial chemicals in rivers and streams like GenX, which was dumped into the Cape Fear River by an upstream plant for decades. But the Cooper administration says those previously announced changes are either unnecessary or will make it harder for the Department of Environmental Quality to regulate the chemicals.
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