A state government budget proposal from North Carolina Senate Republicans received initial approval in their chamber on Wednesday, outlining a plan that spends the same amount as a competing House measure but differs on priorities, tax details and a host of policy prescriptions.
The two-year budget measure, which reached the chamber floor for debate less than 48 hours after it was unveiled, received bipartisan support even though nearly all proposed Democratic amendments were set aside through the GOP's parliamentary maneuvering.
“Everybody in this room loves North Carolina. We just have different views on how to get and make it better,” said Sen. Brent Jackson of Sampson County, a chief budget writer, just before the 36-13 vote. “But that’s not to say at the end of the day we can’t pull pieces of (amendments) out and work together.”
Once the bill is given one more affirmative Senate vote on Thursday, state senators will begin to negotiate and compromise on a budget proposal with the House, which approved their own plan last month. That legislation, reflecting final consensus, will ultimately be voted on and presented to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who as with the state House's plan, criticized the Senate proposal.
The competing state House and Senate measures would both spend $29.8 billion for the fiscal year starting July 1 and $30.9 billion the following year — not including several billion dollars for reserves, capital expenditures and disaster relief. The House plan would provide higher pay raises for teachers and rank-and-file state employees. For example, average teacher pay would increase by 10.2% over two years in the House plan. For the Senate, it would be just 4.5%.
Cooper blasted the Senate measure before Wednesday’s debate, calling it a “historic disaster for public education.” In particular, he said that under the bill, many teachers with at least 15 years of experience would only receive $250 in raises over two years.
“Public schools educate 8 in 10 of our state’s school-age children but the Senate budget starves them,” Cooper tweeted.
Senate Republicans counter that overall state education spending continues to grow, comprising 58% of the overall state budget spending next year. And they’ve said that their teacher pay schedule changes emphasized raising the base salary for first-year teachers by almost 11% over two years to $41,000 for the 2024-25 school year.
Cooper is in a poor position to influence the plan since Republicans now hold veto-proof seat majorities in both chambers. And the Medicaid expansion law that he sought for years and signed in March requires separate passage of the state budget before more low-income adults can obtain health care coverage. That gives Republicans the upper hand to load the budget up with things Cooper dislikes.
Attempts to improve veteran teacher pay and block a major expansion of private-school vouchers were contained in Democratic amendments that were turned back. Still, seven of the Senate’s 20 Democrats joined all Republicans present in voting for the full measure.
The Senate plan also would lower individual income taxes by an additional $1.2 billion over two years by dropping the rate from the current 4.75% to 3.99% in 2025, rather than the 2027 date currently in state law. The House plan would make more measured income tax changes. The Senate plan also initiates new excise taxes on ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, with proceeds going to road maintenance.
Also on health care, the Senate budget proposal would dramatically relieve medical facilities of state regulatory hurdles before they can expand or use expensive equipment well beyond the eases “certificate of need” rules approved in this year’s Medicaid expansion law. Supporters of eliminating such rules say doing so increases competition.
As for the courts, the legislature would get to appoint 10 special Superior Court judges, who can be assigned to cases across the state. Such appointments have historically been made by the governor. And automatic appeals of intermediate-level Court of Appeals decisions to the state Supreme Court would be dramatically narrowed to only apply to constitutional questions.
Democratic Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed of Mecklenburg County criticized these and other court changes as a consolidation of power “further compromising a strong independent judiciary and undermining the checks and balances that our government fundamentally relies on.”