North Carolina lawmakers neared the end of a year of dramatic changes in policies and priorities on Wednesday with their approval of a $20.6 billion, two-year budget.
The Senate passed the plan 32-17. The House voted 65-53. The General Assembly's annual session is scheduled to conclude this week, returning next spring to adjust the second year of the spending plan.
The Republicans have massive majorities in both chambers, but there was still intense debate about the budget on the floor Wednesday. Rep. Larry Hall, for example, said North Carolina was severely damaged by the budget.
But House Speaker Thom Tillis said, "We have done a good job with this budget. We need to move on."
Tillis said there was wasteful spending in the past at the expense of raises for teachers, and said, "We are cleaning up the mess."
Tillis, a GOP candidate for U.S. Senate, took the unusual step of debating the legislation after criticism that it shortchanges the poor and middle class.
"This is about a different means to the same end. What I do know is that prior means didn't work," said Tillis, R-Mecklenburg. "Does anybody really think that I came down to this Legislature so that we couldn't take care of people who were helpless and need the state's help? That's absurd."
GOP lawmakers said they acted responsibly by passing a budget only 2 percent greater than the $20.2 billion lawmakers allocated last year. The spending plan fully funds state pensions and the state health insurance plan, covers spiraling Medicaid costs, matches expected classroom demands from elementary schools to universities, and offers $10 million to compensate victims of the state's now-defunct forced-sterilization program, legislative leaders said. That's in addition to about $524 million in planned tax cuts over the next two years that GOP lawmakers predict will spur new business investment and job creation.
The spending blueprint for this year and next is driven primarily by Medicaid expenses and tax cuts, which together account for about $2 billion over the two years, said Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, a House budget co-chairman.
Democrats focused their criticism on the scheduled tax cuts, which they say will mostly benefit the wealthy and big corporations. The $260 million cut in overall public education spending this year will alienate more teachers already near the nation's bottom in pay, eliminate their job security, and lead to more congested classes, opponents said.
"This is the middle piece of the Republican agenda. The tax bill which we passed was step one. It cut a half-billion dollars out of revenue to provide gifts to the wealthiest people in the state and to out-of-state corporations. Then you're short a half-billion and we start on everybody else," said Sen. Martin Nesbitt, leader of the chamber's Democrats. "Take it out of the middle class. Take it out of services to the people. And then pass an elections bill so they can't get to the polls to get retribution."
Nesbitt was referring to another piece of disputed Republican-written legislation the Senate was debating Wednesday: a law that would place sweeping new restrictions on when, where and how citizens can vote. The measure would cut the state's early voting period by a week, eliminate same-day voter registration, require voters to present a government-issued photo ID at the polls, and increase the maximum individual campaign contribution for wealthy donors.
Spending cuts are affecting public schools and colleges and hurting education funding for rural communities, said Nesbitt, who also bemoaned earlier cuts to employment benefits and the state's rejection of federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage to the poor and disabled.
Senate GOP leaders said the Legislature's first priority was to stabilize state finances wracked by years of recession and what they described as mismanagement by Democrats who previously held the purse strings.
"We will definitely go along and take responsibility for this budget if you'll accept all of those that put us in the hole," said Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, who helped write the spending plan. "We've got a balanced budget that's going to meet the revenue that we expect to come in. That's the way we chose to do the budget. I think you'll end up liking it. The schools will not close, they will operate."
The budget was written by Republicans, who last year won large majorities in both chambers and a political ally in McCrory.
Republicans say they acted responsibly by fully funding state pensions, the state health insurance plan and Medicaid.
Democrats are focusing their criticism on a half-billion dollars in tax cuts over the next two years they say will mostly benefit the wealthy and big corporations. Opponents say cuts in public education spending will leave the state's schools stuck near the nation's bottom in spending per student and teacher pay.