Lawmakers in Raleigh are one step closer to finalizing a spending plan for North Carolina.
State senators on Thursday gave tentative approval to their version of the budget, with 33 Republicans voting in favor and 15 Democrats against. The plan would increase average teacher pay and would give pay raises for some state employees.
But the most intense debate centered on two issues that had little to do with spending. Sen. Tom Apodaca, R- Hendersonville, wanted to dramatically cut the tuition at three historically black colleges.
"We filed that bill with one motivation, and that motivation was to make the benefits of public education available to all citizens of North Carolina," Apodaca said.
Apodaca wanted to set aside money elsewhere for Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State and Winston-Salem State universities. But the visits and phone calls he got from students and alumni were loud and clear.
"A lot of anger, a lot of discussion, somewhat shocking to me, and somewhat embarrassing,” he said. “As of within the last 30 minutes, I've had a death threat come into my office," he said.
Apodaca withdrew his proposal earlier this week, lowering tuition only at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Western Carolina University. Still, members of the black caucus had a lot to say, including Sen. Don Davis, D- Snow Hill, whose mother graduated from a historically black university.
"I want to first start by saying no one should receive a death threat," Davis said Thursday.
That said, Davis said many people didn’t see good intentions behind Apodaca’s proposal and thought he was trying to close the schools. As enrollment has declined at some universities, the same has happened to their state funding. And Apodaca’s plan originally would have changed some of the school names.
"Some of this, we have to look at ourselves in terms of creating some of this situation and actually being responsible for this situation," Davis said.
Not all members of the black caucus were so skeptical. Sen. Gladys Robinson, D- Raleigh, received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from history black universities, and said she would have liked the schools to be more involved in the planning. She also said some of the schools do need the help.
The other major point of contention in the Senate budget had more to do with the environment than with money. Republican leaders want to repeal a set of rules for the state to help clean Jordan and Falls lakes.
"It is not polluted. It has algae in it. The water can be run through a treatment plant, and it is very safe to drink," said Senator Trudy Wade, a Republican from Guilford County.
The Jordan Lake rules largely require communities upstream like Guilford and Alamance counties to control the water run-off spilling into the rivers that feed the lake. But Senator Rick Gunn, R- Burlington, said there has been algae in the lake since the Army Corps of Engineers built it.
"So to sit here and to want to put all this on the upstream communities is asinine," Gunn said.
But Democrats, especially from the areas where 700,000 people get their drinking water from Jordan and Falls lakes, said Republicans have been putting off the water management rules for too long. The rules were approved in 2009.
"At some point in the near future, whether it's federal intervention or an environmental disaster, the pollution of Jordan Lake will reach a tipping point, and we will all have to pay," said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Democrat from Wake County.
Republicans now want to spend $500,000 studying whether non-native mussels can eat the excess nutrients in the lakes and help clean them up. The plan would have to be approved by the House.
Rep. Chuck McGrady, R- Hendersonville, who also served as former president of the national Sierra Club, declined to take a position on the plan.
“I want to enter negotiations with the Senate without provoking them,” McGrady said. “And if they can prove to me that we can clean the lake with oysters or mussels or something else, so be it."
Republican House and Senate leaders will negotiate key provisions of the state spending plan this month.
A final agreement is expected to be sent to Gov. Pat McCrory by July 1.