GOP leader says Democrats run risk opposing budget

By: T.C. Hunter - Managing editor
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LUMBERTON — The North Carolina Republican Party executive director says the political future of Democrats could be on the line when they vote on a proposed budget with raises for teachers, the lowest-paid state employees, more money for school safety and more money for community colleges and public universities.

“If they vote no on the budget it will be bad for the people of North Carolina and good for the Republican Party, Dallas Woodhouse said.

The state GOP is ready to challenge Democratic lawmakers in many House and Senate races during the Nov. 6 General Election, he said. One of them is Rep. Charles Graham’s District 47, which covers much of Robeson County.

“It’s definitely a district we have our eye on,” Woodhouse said.

State lawmakers, including Graham, have a choice, Woodhouse said. They can vote for better teacher pay or not. They can vote for safer schools or not. They can vote for more money for schools or not.

“Legislators’ positions are defined by how they vote,” he said.

The GOP leader dismissed angry comments about the budget being rushed through the Republican controlled General Assembly and closed to amendments during floor debates.

This is the same budget that the General Assembly debated, amended and approved during the 2o17 long session, he said. It is only being adjusted in this year’s short session.

The budget adjustments went through conference committees, just as every piece of legislation created by state lawmakers, he said. It was debated and amended and will now go to the full House and Senate.

“We skipped a couple steps for expediency,” Woodhouse said.

The Democrats need to realize that the people of North Carolina care more about money for education, for school safety and pay raises being in the budget than the legislative process, he said.

“The real reason Democrats are mad is it’s a good bill,” Woodhouse said. “They don’t like being put in the position of having to vote either yes of no.”

And the process has been transparent, starting with the 2017 spending plan, he said. There will be seven or eight more votes before it goes to Gov. Roy Cooper.

The budget has all the things the Democrats want, he said. They just won’t be able to make amendments in the House and Senate.

“It denies them some political grandstanding,” Woodhouse said.

The up-or-down votes on the bill mean Democrats would have to reject proposed 6.5 percent average teacher pay raises this fall by voting no. The amount is slightly higher than the 6.2 percent previously approved for the coming year but lower that Cooper’s 8 percent average proposal.

Democratic lawmakers also would have to explain why they declined to support a budget that also would raise salaries for thousands of low-income state employees to $31,200, the equivalent of a $15 per hour “living wage.”

Most other workers would get 2 percent increases in the agreement, with correctional officers (average 4 percent increase) and state troopers (average 8 percent) getting more. And there’s $15 million for security upgrades within state prisons. Five correctional officers and staff died in prison attacks last year, including four in Pasquotank County.

It is disappointing that the process does not allow amendments to be made on the floors of the House and the Senate, Rep. Graham said.

“It’s unfortunate that the budget is being run this way,” Graham said. “The governor put forward a good budget and it is not being heard.”

One of the items Gov. Cooper’s budget included is $150 for each teacher so teachers can buy supplies for use in their classrooms, Graham said. It also included money to help fund job training.

“And that’s not being considered,” Graham said.

The legislative leadership is choosing to give the top 1 or 2 percent of wage earners in the state tax breaks instead of using that money to help the state’s residents with needs such as health care and for programs that can move the state forward, he said.

“This process is really, since I’ve been in the Legislature, the budget has always been up for debate and open for amendments,” Graham said.

The budget will come to the House and Senate this week and it will be presented for an up or down vote, he said.

“And that’s unfortunate,” Graham said.

Phillip Stephens, chairman of the Robeson County Republican Party, said he is being told by legislators that the majority party always controls the budget because any amendments proposed by the minority party would not be passed because they do not have the votes. The Democrats had plenty of opportunity to make any objections known during the 2017 long session.

The $23.9 billion agreement, reached after weeks of private talks between House and Senate GOP negotiators, continued down the fast track with committee debate.

Cooper and fellow Democratic legislators say GOP legislators could have done better on teacher pay and school security spending if they hadn’t continued a multiyear effort to slash corporate tax rates and individual tax rates.

The measure containing the budget changes keeps in place similar tax cuts to begin in 2019. Also included are benefits from more than $600 million in additional revenue collections through mid-2019, thanks to a growing economy.

The Democratic critique sets up the same likely sequence from a year ago, when Cooper vetoed the two-year budget and Republicans used their veto-proof majorities to quickly override him.

Democrats are angry because Republicans are using a parliamentary process that prevents lawmakers from offering any budget amendments — something that hasn’t happened since at least the early 1970s.

“It’s unambiguous that the driving force behind this abusive process is so that their vulnerable members don’t have to show any sort of political courage by taking tough votes on amendments,” said Rep. Grier Martin, a Wake County Democrat, adding that in the budget “we’re finding lots of very troubling provisions.”

As previously announced, the agreement contains $35 million to address school safety and student support personnel following the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead.

Cooper had requested $130 million, half of which would go to building security upgrades for K-12 schools and on University of North Carolina and community college campuses. Republicans have said more money was expected in future years, including as much as $90 million in Medicaid funds to address behavioral and other health needs.

Other key items in the agreement include a previously announced proposal to expand tax breaks to lure companies that create thousands of jobs in North Carolina. It could be attractive to a company like Apple, which is strongly considering the state for a new corporate campus.

There’s also $12 million to address unregulated industrial chemicals in rivers and streams like GenX, which was dumped into the Cape Fear River by an upstream plant for decades. But the Cooper administration says those previously announced changes are either unnecessary or will make it harder for the Department of Environmental Quality to regulate the chemicals.

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T.C. Hunter

Managing editor

T.C. Hunter can be reached at 910-816-1974 or [email protected] The Associated Press contributed to this report.

T.C. Hunter can be reached at 910-816-1974 or [email protected] The Associated Press contributed to this report.