RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) – Republicans in the North Carolina Senate didn’t give much credence to dozens of ideas contributed by their Democratic counterparts on Wednesday, when they debated and essentially passed their version of the state’s biennial budget by the supermajority that they own.

The roughly-3-hour hearing was interminable in several ways: Democrats put forth about two dozen amendments – the actual number was difficult to count because of maneuverings – and Republicans shot down all of them with either strange and tedious replacement bills or their trusted usual weapon, the motion to table.

NC Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) (WGHP)

In the end, though, there was a vote of 36-13 vote on its second reading, and the bill returned for the formality of a third vote on Thursday morning, which carried, 37-12. Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Greensboro) was one of seven Democrats who voted in favor.

The bill – technically House Bill 259 – will return to the House, as all bills would, where it would be rejected. That would send the matter to a conference committee, which will negotiate the differences, which could take a few weeks to sort out, so varied were the two chambers’ proposals.

Senate Leader Phil Berger, when introducing the bill about 48 hours before Wednesday’s vote, said the whole thing could be wrapped up and sent to Gov. Roy Cooper by the end of June. One can only wonder how Cooper will react, especially given the GOP’s penchant to override his vetoes.

The Senate-updated biennial budget, as advertised on Monday, sets spending at $29.8 billion in fiscal year 2023-24 and $30.9 billion the next year. It also increases by more than $1 billion the state’s savings funds for rainy days, inflation and catastrophic events, and it includes tax cuts for both individuals and corporations, the latter of which Democrats tried to change.

The individual income tax rate is planned to decrease to 4.5% by 2024 and 2.49% by 2030. There were plenty of spending initiatives that continued to live even though the House has suggested different levels for them.

The budget includes the pieces of Medicaid expansion that were hammered out in a law signed by Cooper earlier this spring, but there were some variances in the certificate-of-need issue that senators want to adjust while the House prefers to play down.

The Senate’s version of the budget also includes significantly smaller raises for teachers (4.5% for the two years) and state employees (5%) than the House had preferred. Both of them are far behind the suggestions Cooper had made before that.

This budget would expand the ability for state officials to recruit in high-need, difficult-to-retain jobs, would raise starting teacher pay by nearly 11% over two years and would improve average teacher pay to $59,121 by the end of 2024-25.

Nursing faculty at community colleges and the UNC System would receive a minimum 10% salary increase, and the NC Highway Patrol, State Bureau of Investigation, and Alcohol Law Enforcement would get a 12% bump over two years.

“This is a conservative budget that hits our spending target while aggressively cutting taxes and being good stewards of your tax dollars,” Senate Appropriations Chair Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Sampson) said in a release after the vote. “We spend one-time funds on one-time needs and keep recurring costs in check. After more than a decade of responsible fiscal policy, North Carolina remains on steady ground as we continue to face economic uncertainty.” 

Some of the key elements in the budget

  • Spends more than $17.2 billion on education in 2023-24 and over $17.6 billion in ‘24-25.
  • Expands school vouchers to all families, starting in 2024-25, a point the House had moved along at the same time on Wednesday.
  • Adds $10 million in recurring contributions to help public K-12 schools hire around 120 more nurses, counselors, social workers and psychologists.
  • Provides almost $70 million to expand community college courses in high-demand career fields, including nursing and other health-related programs.
  • Provides $10 million each year and a one-time allotment of $5 million next year to help North Carolina A&T become the first historically Black college and university to obtain the R1 Carnegie Classification.
  • Increases funding for large transportation projects by $473.85 million next year and $611 million the following.
  • Distributes the $1.5 billion Medicaid signing bonus in $370 million for NC Care Initiative between ECU and UNC Health systems that will feature the construction of three regional health clinics, $96 million for rural loan repayment incentive programs for primary care and behavioral health providers, $60 million for start-up costs and expansion of healthcare programs at community colleges and $20 million for UNC-Pembroke’s new health care-oriented programs.
  • Repeals certificate-of-need requirements for mobile MRI machines, linear accelerators, physician office-based vascular access for hemodialysis and kidney disease treatment centers and for ambulatory surgical centers and facilities with MRI machines in counties with a population of less than 125,000 that do not have a hospital.
  • Adds $110 million to increase behavioral health provider rates on a recurring basis, $60 million for worker wage increases, $50 million to retain half of the COVID-19 enhancement for skilled nursing facilities, $15 million each year for free and charitable clinics and increases Medicaid reimbursements for private duty nursing services from $45 per-hour to $52 per-hour.
  • Allocates $1.4 billion to NCInnovation to improve applied research outputs at UNC System schools and to help commercialize the results of that research.
  • Provides $10 million in reserves to help local governments develop new megasites and prepare them for business.
  • $35 million for the school safety grant program.
  • Provides almost $19 million for a new agriculture manufacturing and processing Initiative.

Replacing and tabling

Like those ideas or not, there wasn’t going to be anything added. And various Democrats pleaded and pitched a variety of ideas, including how to recruit and retain rural health workers and keeping the corporate tax rate at 2.5%, which was deemed to be more than fair comparatively.

Sen. Natasha Marcus (D-Mecklenburg) wanted to do something about fake clinics that offered more religion than medical care. She wanted to erase the entry that prohibits family planning and related programs at abortion clinics, to ensure that crisis pregnancy centers were medical facilities, to require the biological father of a child to pay for the mother’s pregnancy expenses and for post-partum care, to ensure the “fundamental liberty” to use contraception and to address a loophole brought on by the pistol purchase permit by advancing to immediately when criminal penalties for domestic violence dictated in Senate Bill 20 would go into effect.

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake) (NCGA)

But before that amendment reached a vote, state Sen. Warren Daniel (R-Buncombe) suggested a substitute that would fix and clarify some technical errors in the budget bill. That became the common theme, because when a substitute passes, that means that the original bill was dead.

There was a pitch to increase the cost-of-living raise for state retirees, to expand benefits for veterans, to remove the state’s prohibition on contributing dollars for trails and greenways. State. Rep. Chad Chaudhuri (D-Wake) wanted to fully fund the implementation of court-ordered voter ID programs, to clean the voter rolls, to expand voter registration and implement online voting and, of course, to create an independent commission to draw electoral districts.

Everything was either replaced by an inane detail or simply tabled in the traditional way.

Democratic Sens. Michael Garrett (holding sign at left) and Natasha R. Marcus, and other Democrats hold signs in protest after the state Senate voted to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a bill that would change the state’s abortion law. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

‘Extra spicy’

That happened repeatedly until, on Amendment 14, Sen. Michael Garrett (D-Greensboro) rose to speak passionately in suggesting that be allocated to protect children from mass shootings.

“I know every member of this body cares deeply about children of this state,” Garrett said. “And there’s not a week and almost a day that goes by that we witness shooting at a nightclub or a bank or God forbid a school.

“Since we have rejected widely popular bipartisan gun reform measures, I hope we can do something. This is small, but it is important.”

Garrett suggested providing $105 million to the Department of Public Instruction to create a program for parents to purchase bulletproof backpacks. “That’s where we are as a state and as a country, and I hate that we are here,” he said.

Garrett is the father of two preschool-aged children. He recounted how on Monday he drove them to their early childhood education center in downtown Greensboro.

“I was thinking what we would be doing here,” he said. “My hug was a little longer, and my squeeze was a little tighter. Tears come when you think about all of the parents across the country who won’t have that gift for their families.”

When he was finished, there was Daniel with another substitute. His idea: Insert a hyphen between “3” and “judge” to clean up the “3-judge panel.” It passed.

Of that maneuver, Garrett told WGHP: “It is crass. But they’re clearly feeling extra spicy today.”