(The Center Square) – North Carolina’s biennial budget moved closer to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk with approvals in the House and Senate on Thursday, despite numerous objections from Democrats in both chambers.
The Senate voted 28-19 to approve House Bill 259 Thursday evening, following a 69-40 vote in the House earlier in the day. Both chambers are slated to cast final votes on Friday, at 12:01 a.m. in the House and 9:30 a.m. in the Senate.
Cooper has not signaled whether he intends to approve the legislation, though lawmakers tied enactment of the spending plan to Medicaid expansion – a top policy objective for the governor since he took office in 2017. In the Senate, no Republicans voted against and no Democrats were in favor; in the House, no Republicans were against and there were “aye” votes from Rep. Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford, Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland, and Rep. Michael Wray, D-Northampton.
The votes Thursday came less than a day after the Republican majority unveiled the 611-page, $60.7 million spending plan Democrats in both chambers bemoaned as “unethical” and “insufficient” to address the state’s needs.
Several pointed to 7% raises for state employees and teachers over two years, expansion of opportunity scholarships parents can use to send their children to private school, and accelerated tax cuts to say Republicans built the budget to benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor.
“We are able to be tackling these problems, but we’re willfully choosing not to tackle them so we can do other things … like cut taxes,” said Rep. Wesley Harris, D-Mecklenburg. “We have less revenue in real terms than we had last year.”
Other Democrats highlighted the process, criticizing Republicans for excluding them from negotiations that dragged on 83 days beyond the new fiscal year. Once the budget was complete, the voting schedule, they said, left minority members with little time to review the conference report and supporting documents that totaled more than 1,000 pages.
“We have a committee process for a reason … so everybody gets a chance to be heard,” said Rep. Abe Jones, D-Wake. “The process where we now get the budget just yesterday and we vote on it today, I ask the question: What’s the hurry? This is the most important thing that we do.”
In the upper chamber, several Democrats also criticized policy provisions that will allow lawmakers to decide whether their legislative records are available to the public, and expanded powers for the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations that they say will allow officers to enter buildings and demand documents or access computer systems without a warrant.
“We do not need a legislative spy agency,” said Sen. Graig Meyer, D-Caswell.
Republicans pointed to conservative policies that have propelled the state’s economic success and accelerated tax cuts in the budget that will continue that trend by saving taxpayers $1.2 billion over the next two years. They also touted investments in the state’s disaster relief fund, Medicaid contingency fund, and other savings accounts.
Senate Republicans noted that the state’s rainy day fund will reach nearly $5 billion after the 2023-24 fiscal year.
Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, highlighted investments in education that will boost average annual teacher pay to $60,671 by 2025, $30 million allocated to boost teacher pay supplements, and a frontloaded teacher pay scale designed to recruit more into the profession.
Higher pay “while keeping UNC tuition flat is going to help encourage more adults to pursue the teaching profession,” he said.
Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, said “one of the longest debates for Medicaid expansion will finally come to an end,” and explained how the budget will spend a $1.6 billion federal incentive that comes with expansion.
The money will go toward a new $319 million UNC children’s hospital, investments in health care programs at community colleges, $40 million in targeted bonuses for employees in state health facilities, higher reimbursement rates for behavioral health providers, and four new crisis facilities for students, among other uses.
Sen. Jim Burgin, R-Harnett, noted the budget represents “the largest investment in health care in North Carolina history” with a Department of Health and Human Services appropriation of $7.33 billion, or $829.2 million more than the current budget in the first year. The allocation will increase to $7.76 billion in year two, he said.
Other investments highlighted by Republicans included $25 million across the two years for the state’s farmland preservation program, $47 million for state trails, increased fees for autopsies, and $80 million for new mental health crisis teams.