Lawmakers in the State Senate have presented a $20.6 billion budget proposal. It would spend slightly less than Governor McCrory’s plan and offers no raises for state employees. The plan would also increase state Medicaid spending by about $300 million and make big changes to the State Bureau of Investigation.
Republican budget writer Senator Pete Brunstetter told reporters earlier today that he knows this is a tough budget plan. He says its purpose is to make sure the state lives within its means.
"We’ve been through four extremely difficult years with a recession and post recession, and yet we manage this budget not only without a tax increase, but we manage it with some tax reform accounted for, and a tax cut accounted for," says Brunstetter.
Both Senate and House leaders want to lower state income and corporate tax rates and broaden the sales tax to include services. The Senate budget would set aside nearly $220 million to help pay for tax reform.
But the most salient feature of the Senate’s budget plan concerns the state’s Medicaid program. More money would be added to pay for inflation, expenses, and tens of thousands more patients coming onto the rolls. Brunstetter says says he knows that places pressure on the state.
"We’re making the hard decisions to divert resources into more critical programs, and sometimes that means tough decisions on those that are left behind," he says. "Bottom line is we are doing what we can with the resources that we have available to perform the fundamental responsibilities that state government has."
Although the Senate budget would allocate more money to Medicaid to take care of ballooning enrollment rolls, the sheer volume of patients requiring coverage means that Senate budget writers have made cuts within the program. Copays would go up, and funding for private nursing services and HIV drug assistance would go down.
In the area of education, Senate leaders say their proposed budget would fully fund enrollment growth in public schools, community colleges and the university system. And leaders want to move the State Bureau of Investigation from the Attorney General’s Office to the Department of Public Safety. Republican Senator Harry Brown explained why.
"It simply does not make sense for our state’s top attorney to supervise the SBI, just like it wouldn’t make sense for your local district attorney to supervise your sheriffs or police," said Brown.
That sparked a strong reaction earlier today from Attorney General Cooper himself. His news conference was carried by WRAL.
Cooper said: "I stand here today with North Carolina police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors to urge the governor and the General Assembly, to keep the SBI independent from the governor’s executive branch and in the North Carolina Department of Justice."
In that news conference, held as Senate budget writers were still explaining their proposal, Cooper explained why he thinks the idea to move the State Bureau of Investigation out of the realm of his office is a bad idea.
"Over the last decade, the SBI has investigated over 500 public officials, including the past two governors administrations, a house speaker, legislators, the department of public safety…and other executive branch agencies," said Cooper.
The attorney general says it’s important for the SBI to remain independent so such probes won’t be influenced by officials it could be investigating. Senate subcommittees met this afternoon to discuss the budget proposal. It’s expected to be sent to the House later this week.