Lawmakers in the state House have tentatively passed a 21 billion dollar budget adjustment for this fiscal year. It would give teachers average 7 percent raises at a cost of 282 million dollars. Republicans say the spending plan is sustainable. But Democrats in the House are asking whether the combination of pay raises and this year’s lower tax rates will be sustainable over the long term.
Leaders in the House began debating the budget conference report at 10 a.m. today. Appropriations Chair Nelson Dollar began by presenting what the bill stands for.
"This conference report represents a compromise between the House position and the Senate position. You have to be able to give in a negotiation, you have to be able to stand on your principles and those things that you believe are most critical and most important," said Dollar.
The most important issue for leaders in the House and Senate was increasing teacher pay. Originally the Senate wanted pay raises of 11 percent on average- the House wanted six percent. Dollar said the seven percent average raise both chambers settled on is a good compromise. He also mentioned that the budget provides three million dollars for the World War II-era USS North Carolina in Wilmington, which is in need of repairs:
"It ensures that our budget foundation just like with our battleship is gonna be sound and ready to sail into the future with a better economy."
But Democrats disagree.
"It’s not sustainable, we all know it," said Larry Hall, the Minority Leader of the House. "There’s a saying out there about chicken salad. They say you can make chicken salad out of chicken feathers. Well this budget is chicken feathers.Kind of fluffy, looks good, no substance when you test it."
Hall says the money used for teacher raises compromises other programs, including the Department of Health and Human Services.
- The budget cuts funding for DHHS by 16 million dollars.
- It decreases funding for Medicaid by about 135 million dollars- mostly in the form of cuts to providers.
- The UNC system will receive some money for specific programs, but must also cut 76 million dollars over the biennium.
And Hall reminded his colleagues about a recent report by legislative staff projecting that tax cuts passed by lawmakers last year will bring in 700 million dollars less to the state’s coffers:
"We got figures last week that showed projections that revenue would be down. That trend will continue, we know, over a period of time [so] what we’re looking at [is an] increasing population with an increasing need for services."
Besides the revenue issue, other lawmakers said they know this budget isn’t perfect. Republican representative Bryan Holloway is an appropriations chair. He said he would vote for it.
"Is it what I would put together personally in every facet? No. But I don’t think a single person in here can ever say that. That’s why we have a legislative process. We have 120 members. We’ve got the Senate. Sometimes I think I could live without the Senate. Actually, I know I could live without the Senate," said Holloway.
Holloway joked he’d like to slip something into the budget to make the legislature unicameral, with the House in control. It’s clear the tension between both chambers hampered lawmakers’ ability to finish this session in a timely fashion. But at this point everyone is ready to go home. At a press conference earlier this afternoon, Governor McCrory said he was grateful to lawmakers for spending so many long nights to finish the budget.
"There were several issues that I refused to compromise on," said McCrory. "I’m pleased to say that this budget falls within the parameters where I do not need to veto this bill and I’d be proud to sign it."
Lawmakers must vote one more time to approve the bill before they send it to the governor.