Share story

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina budget adjustments for next year neared final legislative approval Thursday following separate near party-line House and Senate votes favoring the Republican proposal.

The House gave its initial OK in a 72-45 vote after more than five hours of mostly acrimonious debate between the parties over the $23.9 billion spending plan negotiated solely by GOP lawmakers. The final House vote will come Friday. The Senate completed its voting earlier Thursday, approving the agreement 36-14 after essentially no debate. Tentative Senate approval came Wednesday after 90 minutes of debate.

House debate took on harsh tones as Democrats complained how House and Senate Republicans hammered out the plan in secret over several weeks, then refused to let any lawmakers offer amendments. This kind of budget prohibition hasn’t occurred in at least 45 years.

“I don’t think I have ever felt as left out in my responsibility to my government and to my constituents that I represent,” said Rep. Becky Carney, a Mecklenburg County Democrat. “I’m just stunned, I’m disappointed … I’m told I don’t get a say in this budget. What do I tell my people?”

House Republicans said their political opponents were engaging in hyperbole over the parliamentary process and budget content to win political points ahead of key legislative elections this fall. Democrats are energized with hopes of ending the GOP’s veto-proof majorities and giving more leverage to Gov. Roy Cooper.

“To claim that you are somehow not heard or somehow shut out of the process simply because it’s your talking point, simply because it’s your rallying point, simply because it fits in your scheme … is completely absurd,” said Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican and chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee.

Still some hardline Republicans had heartburn over what they considered a lack of budget transparency. The lone House Republican voting against the bill, retiring Guilford County Rep. John Blust, said House leaders are “creating a new low standard.”

“This process is not the best we can be. It’s not even near what we ought to be,” said Rep. Larry Pittman of Cabarrus County. He still voted for the budget.

Republicans turned back a motion by Minority Leader Darren Jackson of Wake County to send the final budget deal back to negotiators. He wanted them to insert Cooper’s proposal that would have blocked income tax cuts set to take effect in January and used those additional revenues to raise teacher pay even further than what Republicans proposed.

After its likely final passage Friday, the budget heads to Cooper, who must decide whether to make the bill law or veto it. He vetoed the two-year budget approved in 2017, but Republicans quickly overrode it. This budget alters the second year of that plan.

Otherwise, Republican leaders said Democrats should support the plan because it gave teachers average pay raises of 6.5 percent this fall — although only $700 raises for the most-experienced educators — and 6.9 percent raises for principals. While rank-and-file state employees would get 2 percent pay increases, higher raises would go to state troopers and correctional officers.

And thousands of the lowest-income state workers would see their minimum salaries reach a new minimum of $31,200 — the equivalent of a $15 per hour “living wage.”

Cooper proposed a budget that would have spent $600 million more overall. House Democrats said the GOP bill fell short in other areas, including research and testing for contaminants in rivers like GenX. The measure didn’t include money for testing sexual assault kits held by local law enforcement agencies or for a suicide prevention hotline. Republicans said they could be addressed in separate legislation.

Thursday’s debate also took a turn when a House member called on Democrats to apologize after the state’s longest-serving legislator said earlier this week a “rape” of the state budget was happening because GOP leaders blocked their input.

Rep. Holly Grange, a New Hanover County Republican, said on the floor that debate had reached a “repulsive low” with the word used by Democratic Rep. Mickey Michaux of Durham County. Grange didn’t identify Michaux by name.

Michaux, who is retiring later this year, didn’t back down from his comment from Tuesday, saying “sometimes it takes strong words to make people realize what’s happening to them.”