For many lawmakers and lobbyists, the culmination of five months of work during this biennial long session came when a final budget was released late Sunday night. More than 500 pages and $20.5 billion, the budget was finalized behind closed doors by two men, both Republicans – Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis.
On Monday, they let their lieutenants do the talking.
“Obviously it represents a compromise between the priorities of the house and priorities of the senate,” said Senator Peter Brunstetter.
Among those compromises, Tillis got one thing he’s wanted for two years – compensation for eugenics victims. The budget sets aside $10 million to be shared by those who can prove they were victims of the state-sponsored sterilization program.
It was one of the rare areas of new spending. Most of the budget represented cuts, to programs as varied as the Biofuels Center to the court system to the troubled Rural Economic Development Center.
The Senate especially never liked the idea of eugenics compensation, but Berger gave in while making sure he got some things he wanted. They included major changes to education, like a 21 percent cut to funding for teacher assistants.
“I think what we’re doing is we’re focusing on providing teachers assistants in grades K through 1, which is the area where research shows TA’s really impact performance,” said Brunstetter.
Teachers also will no longer get tenure, they again didn’t get raises, and they will not receive a salary bump when they get advanced degrees. They are provisions that are tough for educators to swallow.
“You don’t do this to lawyers. You don’t do this to doctors. You don’t do this to judges,” said Roseanne Throckmorton, an elementary school teacher from Rural Hall. “We train all the professions, but somehow we end up getting slammed.”
Throckmorton joined the energetic crowd of protestors who followed the same pattern as earlier Moral Monday events, eventually crowding their way into the Legislature. But this time, the House had already adjourned and lawmakers had been gone for more than an hour. That did not diminish the protestors’ enthusiasm.
The twelve Moral Mondays will, in the end, have little effect on what the General Assembly does in the next few days. There will be passionate debate over the budget and Voter I.D. and maybe regulations on clinics that provide abortions. But in the end, the Republicans have more votes than they will need to pass whatever they want to pass, and Governor Pat McCrory will very likely sign whatever comes to his desk.
Even disagreements over things like the payments for eugenics victims won’t come between the Republicans.
“Each individual at the end of the day has got to make their own decision whether they vote in favor of something or not,” said Brunstetter. “I feel fairly confident our folks will not let that be a stumbling block.”
The House and Senate are both likely to take a first vote on the budget as early as today. Leaders hope they can wrap up the session no later than Thursday.