Budget stalls over raises

By: - August 10, 2005 4:53 am

Raleigh News & Observer
Speaker says he will meet with parties today to get process back on track


A battle over a $150 bonus for state employees sidetracked approval of a $17.2 billion budget Tuesday night.

With one vote to spare, the state House on Tuesday night tentatively approved the budget after agreeing to provide the bonuses in a separate bill. But then word came that Senate leaders and Gov. Mike Easley would not go along.

"He’d veto it," House Speaker Jim Black said of Easley. "He didn’t like it."

Easley could not be reached for comment late Tuesday night. Senate leader Marc Basnight said he did not want to consider additional money for state employees that is not a part of the main budget.

"You should stay within the confines of the compromise," Basnight said.

Several House members sought the additional compensation for state employees, which would have cost a total of $22 million. Led by freshman Rep. Linda Coleman, a Knightdale Democrat and retired state employee, they wanted to improve upon the raise offered in the budget — 2 percent or $850, whichever was greater, plus an additional week of vacation.

The raise was less than last year’s increase of 2.5 percent or $1,000, which followed three years of little or no raises in a tough economy. Many in the House wanted to do better. Coleman was stunned at the outcome.

"I can’t believe that we’re having this much hoopla over $150 per state employee," Coleman said.

Dana Cope, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, was incensed.

"He’s trading off a $20 million request for state employees who are making poverty level wages for a $17 billion budget," Cope said of Easley. "It’s just so incredibly petty."

Black said he would try to get the budget on track today by working out differences between the governor, Senate leaders and those in the House who are pushing for the bonuses.

He agreed earlier to run the bonuses in a separate bill because he did not want to undo the budget bill just hours before it was scheduled for a vote.

The vote in the House was 60-59 largely along party lines, with the Republican minority in the House voting against the budget. Democratic Reps. Bill Faison, who represents Orange and Caswell counties, and Grier Martin of Raleigh voted against the bill. Faison had earlier expressed opposition to a 25-cent increase in the cigarette tax included in the bill, while Martin was opposed to language the Senate inserted in the bill that might lead to a state lottery.

"I had to vote my conscience on what was best for the state," Martin said. "It was no one issue. It just was not the best budget for the state."

Cope said it was unconscionable that lawmakers would give workers less than what they received last year, while stuffing the budget with millions of dollars in pork-barrel spending and setting aside $197 million in a rainy day fund.

Also troubling, he said, is that some employees have received better treatment. Last year, legislative leaders quietly restored merit pay increases of 1 percent to 3 percent for most legislative employees. Those increases cost more than $500,000.

Meanwhile, the budget calls for a 10 percent pay increase for Coastal Management Division employees. Community college faculty and administrators are also in line for an additional 2 percent increase, and the budget gives Easley authority to provide more pay raises to teachers.

House Minority Leader Joe Kiser, a Lincoln County Republican, said the budget has so much pork that it "sounds like a pig a-squealing."

"It’s the budget process that I’ve seen here so many times," Kiser said. "We raise the taxes and spend the money."

Staff writer Dan Kane can be reached at 829-4861 or [email protected].

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066