Veteran House Democrats question the substance and process behind Senate budget proposal

By: - May 18, 2017 5:00 am

Rep. Michaux

Rep. Henry “Mickey” Michaux

Wednesday was the 63rd anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the milestone U.S. Supreme Court case that ordered an end to racial segregation in American public schools.

That fact hasn’t escaped Rep. Henry Michaux’s attention as the veteran Democrat—the longest-serving member in the state House and a civil rights hero in Durham—shreds a $22.9 billion spending plan approved by the Senate shortly after 3 a.m. last Friday.

House lawmakers are expected to roll out their version of the state’s biennial budget in the coming weeks. But Michaux, a member of his chamber’s top budget committee, is still fired up over a stunning early-morning budget amendment led by Senate Republicans that stripped education funding from districts represented by Senate Democrats, an apparent act of political retaliation for resistance to the GOP’s controversial spending plan.

To Michaux, last week’s budget amendment is as much about race as it is about political payback.

“What have we accomplished in 63 years, particularly in the area of public education?” said Michaux. “They’re going to deny that money to those areas out there because their senators are Democrats or black.”

Indeed, the vote may have dealt the most damage to districts led by Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, a northeastern N.C. Democrat, and Sen. Angela Bryant of Rocky Mount—both black legislators.

Senate President Phil Berger

Republican lawmakers behind the amendment say its intent was to fund $1 million in pilot programs aimed at assuaging the state’s well-documented opioid epidemic, a point made by Senate President Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, Guilford, Tuesday in The News & Observer.

“This amendment helped address, without raising taxes, the opioid crisis that Sen. (Paul) Lowe tried to address with a large tax increase in his amendment,” Berger wrote in an email, according to The N&O.

However, the amendment—offered by Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican who co-chairs the Senate’s budget committee—bankrolls that opioid program with funds stripped from two early college high schools in northeastern North Carolina, as well as a summer science, math and technology program that, by most accounts, has been a boon for low-income, black youth in rural, eastern parts of the state.

The amendment also axes funding for a program combatting food deserts and a slot in Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s office that, according to Cooper’s office, helped obtain federal funding for Hurricane Matthew relief.

Jackson did not respond to Policy Watch requests for comment, but Michaux called the amendment “pathetic,” adding that he hopes House budget writers restore that funding, as well as several other major cuts to the state’s public school funds bundled in last week’s Senate spending package.

“To add insult to injury, you take the money for opioids out of all this other money that’s going to help kids out,” said Michaux. “It just sort of makes no sense.”

Such is the climate in the N.C. General Assembly this week as House appropriations chiefs begin their push to adopt their own budget in the coming days. House Republican leaders have been quiet about the timeline for their spending plan, although lawmakers have previously expressed a desire to wrap the legislature’s budget by mid-June.

Top Democrats on the House budget committee say they’ve heard no set date for the House plan’s reveal, although Michaux said he suspects the chamber’s spending chiefs may make their proposal next week.

Michaux added that he hopes the House will work out the budget’s development through the chamber’s committees, a departure from the Senate approach, in which Senate leadership rolled out their completed spending plan around midnight last Tuesday. Many Senate committee members were asked to vote on the budget with scant knowledge of the 362-page bill the next morning.

Rep. Rosa Gill

Democratic Rep. Rosa Gill, a retired math teacher from Wake County who sits on the House budget committee, expects the House to roll out their plan somewhat differently, but she expects similar results.

“It’s still going to be a wolf in sheep’s clothes,” said Gill. “I think they’ve already decided what they’re going to do, but they’ll put up a face and pretend they want to let the public and committee discuss it.”

Among the expected differences, House and Senate lawmakers are said to disagree on the size of the Senate’s $1 billion tax cut proposal, as well as a Senate plan for teacher pay that funds an average pay increase of about 3.7 percent for teachers.

House legislators are likely to ask for a larger teacher pay raise, Michaux says, and Democrats say they expect it to bypass a Senate-favored teacher pay scale that critics accused of slighting beginning and veteran teachers.

Gill said she believes House raises will be across-the-board for teachers and state employees.

“I think that would be a fair way of doing it, rather than rewarding some teachers and neglecting others. I don’t know why you would slight the experienced teachers when they probably would be the driving force for how our kids are going to achieve academically.”

House legislators are also expected to break with Senate Republicans on the size of a 25-percent funding cut for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI). A recently-retired DPI budget chief told Policy Watch this week that the funding reduction would “totally destroy” the agency’s ability to perform its duties.

The Senate GOP often targets the top state K-12 administrative department as wasteful, although backers of the agency say it provides invaluable professional development and support, particularly in the state’s low-performing and poor districts.

While the cut would slash more than $13 million from the DPI allotment in 2017-2018, it notably diverts funds to create several new positions reporting solely to new Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, who has not responded to Policy Watch interview requests to discuss the overall losses for his department.

On Wednesday, Gill characterized the DPI cuts in the Senate budget as “political.”

“They want to turn over everything to Johnson,” added Gill. “Make cuts in areas that Democrats feel are necessary and weaken our arguments. Sometimes, I just think all these movements are political and they’re always aimed at getting back at somebody.”

Michaux, meanwhile, thinks the Senate budget is mostly show, describing it as a “negotiating document” intended to set the parameters for House-Senate budget negotiations.

“I can’t believe any right-thinking person would think this would go through,” said Michaux.

Ultimately, Michaux said he expects the House budget, particularly when it comes to teacher pay, to approach the proposals of Gov. Cooper.

“They’re going to come fairly close to it and call it their own,” he said. “The House will try to make a decent budget out of it. The Senate will probably hold back and they’ll try to reach middle ground.”

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Billy Ball

Billy Ball, worked at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020 — first as an education reporter and later as managing editor.