Earlier today, lawmakers in the state Senate tentatively approved a 19-point-7 billion dollar spending plan for the next two years. The framework of the plan was a reworked budget proposal released earlier this week after negotiations between Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate.
Republican budget writer Richard Stevens was the first lawmaker to speak about the plan- otherwise known as House Bill 200- on the Senate floor earlier today. He told his colleagues that he and other Republicans have produced the kind of plan they promised they would.
Richard Stevens: "It was going to provide the necessary funds to adequately fund our schools and other vital services of the state. That we were going to not extend temporary taxes. That we were going to make sure we reduce the cost of government, make government more efficient and effective. We believe the budget does just that."
Like many Republican leaders, Stevens takes pride in the fact that this plan would not continue a temporary one percent tax increase enacted by Democrats two years ago. He says, this budget would still fully fund the retirement system and put millions of dollars more into reserve than the governor proposed. Republican Jerry Tillman co-chairs the education subcommittee.
Jerry Tillman: "We’re going to honor our word there and still give you a very responsible budget. It’s a caring budget. And I don’t want to hear the fact that Republicans don’t care. I’ve heard that enough and it’s not true."
How this budget would affect education is a big source of contention between Democrats and Republicans. This version would restore teacher assistant jobs cut from a previous plan and give 300 million dollars more to public schools. Yet the cuts to public education- not to mention community colleges and universities- are still deep. As Democratic senator Josh Stein pointed out, the state’s per-pupil spending is already low, but this budget would make it even lower.
Josh Stein: "We will be behind South Carolina, behind Alabama, behind Louisiana, and now behind Mississippi. Mississippi, they used to come to North Carolina to see how we did it. I never thought the day would come when we would be looking up to Mississippi in public education."
The Republican budget already cuts many school positions. Stein was especially critical of more than 120 million dollars in cuts local school districts would have to make on their own under this budget plan.
Stein: "According to Republican math, if you eliminate 7 positions and hire one back, you’ve hired a teacher. According to real math, you’ve eliminated six positions. How gullible do you think the people of this state are?"
But Republicans say the budget should help schools and the rest of the state get back on its feet by becoming more efficient. It contains a tax break for small businesses that they say will eventually produce jobs for more workers. It keeps some key Medicaid services, though not as many as Democrats think are necessary. Republican Harry Brown said if previous Democratic-penned budgets had been more fiscally responsible, there would be no need for these cuts.
Harry Brown: "And what we did is we set ourself up. We set ourself up for an economy that was gonna turn and put us in this position. So now all of a sudden the economy turns and then we start scrambling trying to figure out what we’re going to do."
Republican leaders firmly believe this budget will get the state on the right fiscally responsible track. And they’re proud of their own efficiency in getting this budget plan to the floor. Phil Berger is the President Pro Tem of the Senate.
Phil Berger: "We see a budget that is brought forward in record time, a budget that will be adopted this week, the first week of June. Now there are a lot of folks that have been here for a long time, but I don’t know that any member of this body can recall a budget being adopted by the first week of June. "
This budget plan is expected to pass tomorrow. It will then move to the House, where leaders say it could be approved by early Saturday morning. The governor hasn’t said whether she would veto it, but it’s clear that she doesn’t like it.