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RALEIGH –The North Carolina House approved a $20.3 billion state budget late Wednesday evening. After a marathon eight-hour session, Democrats joined the Republican majority in a 73-46 vote to sign off on next year’s state budget.
“We adopted a two-year budget last year,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Hendersonville, who supported the budget proposal.
“Last night, we had a late night adopting modifications to the second year,” he said on Thursday. “I think we’re on track as a state to living within our means again.”
The House delivered their approved and amended budget to the Senate door on Thursday morning, where senators are expected to take up the budget debate next week. If they pass the plan, it’s unlikely Gov. Bev Perdue will be unable to veto the budget, which determines how North Carolina will pay for everything from public teacher’s salaries to road maintenance.
McGrady and other supporters in the House said the budget achieved its main goals: it proposed no increases in taxes and reduced cuts to public education while maintaining state health and retirement plans.
But other Western North Carolina House representatives said the budget was simply a rehashing of last year’s Republican-based plan.
“I voted against last year, and I voted against this yesterday,” said Rep. Patsy Keever, an Asheville Democrat, on Thursday. “It was the same budget with a few things changed around.”
Keever said she and fellow Democrats made several attempts to amend the budget but were defeated.
“I tried to get Quitline back in,” said Keever, referring to QuitlineNC, the successful tobacco prevention education program. The House, in a 71-47 vote, slashed Quitline’s allocations from $17 million to $5 million, based on recommendations from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
Keever said she also tried to get money, “back in the budget for children and teachers,” but the partisan House defeated her efforts.
Education was the linchpin of the budget, with many Democrats saying that while the proposed budget held the line on education funding, public schools and universities still got the short end of the stick.
That’s not good enough, said Rep. Ray Rapp, a Mars Hill Democrat, when education costs make up 55 percent of the state’s budget.
“We lost 915 teachers, 2,000 teaching assistants and 5,000 teaching jobs,” said Rapp, who voted against the budget. “Class sizes are growing larger, teachers haven’t gotten a pay raise in five years and now, with this budget, 18,000 students get reduced or eliminated need-base financial aid for our state’s universities.”
Rapp, a former college administrator at Mars Hill College, said cutting public universities and community colleges hurts many of the middle class families in Western North Carolina.
Last year’s 10 percent budget cut to community colleges was not amended in the House’s budget on Wednesday night.
“We did not fund this year’s enrollment growth at the universities,” Rapp said. “So you’re putting a cap on current year enrollment, and squeezing middle class families. They’re going to be paying higher tuition and have less financial aid available to them. It’s unconscionable.”
Rapp also said failing to fund education was tantamount to failing to grow the future of North Carolina.
“The key is we have the state heading in the direction where you’re cutting preparation for the 21st century workforce,” he said. “We’re eating our seed corn. It’s a terrible price to pay down the road.”
In a night of partisan divisions and contentious debate, McGrady, along with Rep. Susan Fisher, an Asheville Democrat, managed to get one of their bipartisan amendments passed.
The representatives made changes to provisions in the allocation of the state’s childcare subsidy program, which offers low-cost childcare to families with working parents. As it was written, the monies weren’t fairly divided among counties such as Buncombe with families on waiting lists for the subsidy and those that did not use all of the state’s money for childcare.
“This was a practical matter,” McGrady said. “We should not send money to counties with no waiting list.”
McGrady said the Childcare Subsidy was a good program, and that his efforts most likely passed debate because they were not “budget changing, just shifting.”
Keever said while McGrady and Fisher’s efforts would help families in Western North Carolina, their collaboration was the exception — not the rule — on Wednesday night.
“Basically I knew the budget was going to pass,” said Keever. “The Reps had all the votes they needed.”