- Associated Press - Thursday, June 2, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The state Senate gave initial approval Thursday to Republican-proposed budget adjustments that capped a sometimes tense debate about worker pay, water quality and university tuition.

The $22.2 billion proposal, which changes the second year of the two-year budget approved last fall, passed on a party-line vote - not the same bipartisan support the House gave its competing budget recommendations two weeks ago.

A final Senate vote was expected just after midnight, setting the stage for weeks of negotiations with the House to fashion a compromise plan for Gov. Pat McCrory.

Senate GOP leaders praised their own efforts, highlighting average 6.5 percent teacher pay raises, hiring new early grade teachers to lower class sizes and tax cuts through higher standard deductions that would disproportionately lower tax bills of low- and middle-income filers. A small revenue surplus and upgrade of Medicaid expenses helped fund much of the pay and tax provisions and boosted state government’s rainy day reserves to a record $1.7 billion.

“Is this budget perfect? Absolutely not,” said Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, co-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, during three hours of floor debate before the 33-15 vote. But “is this budget fiscally responsible? Absolutely. Did we support the basic needs of our state, which is our obligation and duty? Absolutely.”

All Senate Democrats present Thursday voted no on the measure, questioning why the Senate didn’t earmark more of the excess revenues for public education needs and across-the-board raises for rank-and-file state employees.

The House plan, spending the same amount of money overall as the Senate, located 2 percent raises for workers and 1.6 percent retiree cost-of-living allowances. All workers aren’t guaranteed raises in the Senate plan and there is no pension increase. Republicans also would earmark more money annually through 2028 to spend on private school scholarships for K-12 students.

“As I read through this budget, through this bill, I see a lot of winners but I also see a lot of losers,” said Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake. “There’s still seemingly a strong dividing line that’s engineered that firmly defines who in this budget are the haves and the have nots.”

As expected, a key senator offered a successful amendment to remove the historically black Fayetteville State, Winston-Salem State and Elizabeth City State from a list of five University of North Carolina system campuses where tuition would drop to $500 per semester for in-state students and $2,500 for out-of-state students in fall 2018.

UNC-Pembroke and Western Carolina University would remain part of the proposed NC Promise Tuition Plan, which has been billed as a way to help low-income students get out from under debt and boost enrollment at some struggling campuses.

But Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, who championed the plan, pulled out the three historically black schools after protests by some school alumni and students and civil rights leaders, who feared Republicans wouldn’t make up for the lost tuition revenue.

“We filed that bill with one motivation, and that motivation was to make the benefits of public education available to all the citizens of North Carolina,” Apodaca said, but “we’ve had quite a bit of talk and a lot of anger.”

He said on the floor that his office had received a death threat just before the Thursday morning session. Apodaca downplayed it afterward and didn’t know whether he’d report the call to investigators.

Black Senate Democrats said Apodaca’s low-tuition efforts were well-intentioned but attributed the backlash to suspicion in the black community about the GOP agenda in recent years. In previous sessions, Republicans talked about studying whether Elizabeth City State should remain open.

“Perception is real to people,” said Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford. “Partisanship has caused us - has kept us - from bridging the divide this time.”

The budget also would delay further and ultimately repeal never-implemented rules to curb pollution in the Jordan Lake and Falls Lake watersheds - providing drinking water to hundreds of thousands of Piedmont residents.

The bill envisions a new multiyear study to help create new statewide strategies to improve water quality. “For goodness sake, let’s have some science to show that it’s helping,” said Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford, in supporting the adjustments. But Democrats said the current rules should be implemented.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide