NC Senate on track to pass budget bill that includes controversial law changes

By: - June 23, 2021 6:00 am

Special provisions target executive branch powers of Democratic officials

Budget-writing season started with hopes for cooperation and a financial roadmap that would gain significant bipartisan support.  

That’s all soured in the early stages of budget debates, however, with Senate Democrats questioning a Republican-written budget that’s pumped full of “special provisions” that would limit executive branch powers.  

On Tuesday, Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat, asked about several provisions. One would limit the governor’s powers to declare a state of emergency lasting more than 10 days. Another would prevent the state attorney general from agreeing to legal settlements without approval from legislative leaders — if those lawmakers are named parties. And other language removes the State Board of Elections’ power to agree to court settlements when the legislature is not in session.

Republicans objected to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s decisions in the COVID-19 pandemic that limited and closed businesses. They passed bills last year in an attempt to reopen bars, bowling alleys, and other businesses, but were not able to overcome Cooper’s vetoes.  

Republicans are also angry about a lawsuit that Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, and the State Board of Elections settled last fall, which allowed the deadline for receipt of mail-in absentee ballots to be extended to nine days after Election Day; it had previously been just three. The House and Senate have also passed bills this session seeking these limits on the attorney general and the elections board.  

Another provision would prevent the attorney general from joining out-of-state or federal lawsuits that don’t involve recovering damages for the state, unless the Council of State approves.  

The Council of State is composed of officials elected statewide to executive offices. Most of its members are Republican. 

Attorney General Josh Stein

Stein has joined a number of lawsuits over the years, some challenging former President Donald Trump and his appointees. Last year he joined a suit against the U.S Postal Service and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy over changes that delayed mail delivery. DeJoy has long resided in Greensboro and has been a major Republican fundraiser.  

Stein also joined lawsuits challenging the Trump administration over changes to the Endangered Species Act, as well as Trump’s attempt to end DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.  

“This bill appears to be less of a budget document and more of a power grab against the governor, the attorney general, and the State Board of Elections,” Chaudhuri said during Tuesday’s budget committee discussion.  

Republican senators said provisions like these have always been in budgets.  

Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Guilford County Democrat, said Democrats believed the development of a state budget this year would be “a collaborative process,” but as that collaboration stopped in the final stages.  

“It would have been easier if you had been more inclusive of us,” Robinson said. “That was our intent.” 

Sen. Kathy Harrington, a Gaston County Republican and budget committee co-chairwoman, said she and other party members had worked with individual Democratic senators all along.  

The Senate budget committee approved the spending proposal and sent it to the Senate Finance Committee, which will debate it today.  

After the Senate approves its proposal, the budget action moves to the state House. The House will write and pass its own version. Typically, the two chambers end up negotiating a compromise that goes to the governor.  

The Senate’s $25.7 billion budget proposal includes 3% raises for teachers, state employees, community college and UNC employees over two years. 

Teachers have not had a raise in two years because of a budget stalemate between Cooper and the legislature. The NC Association of Educators was quick to denounce the slight increase.  

The Senate budget proposal also includes bonuses for teachers and other state employees.  

The budget adds $61.8 million for private school vouchers, bringing the total available for next year to $146.6 million.  

The budget creates a new line item for school psychologists. Through transfers from an existing line item and some additional money, there would be enough for the state pay for one school psychologist for each school district, said Sen. Ralph Hise, a Spruce Pine Republican and budget committee co-chairman.  

Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford)

A new salary schedule for state corrections officers would result in an average 7% salary increase for them. 

The Senate proposal would also cut the personal income tax more deeply than other reductions the Senate has already approved. The standard deduction – the amount earned before taxes are collected – would increase. For married couples filing jointly, the standard deduction would rise to $25,500 from $21,500.  

The personal income tax rate would gradually decrease, from the current 5.25% to 3.99% after 2025.  

Medicaid expansion, or some version of it, which Cooper and Senate Democrats had been pushing for, is not in the budget. Cooper said weeks ago he knew it would not be included.  

The budget does have a provision allowing women who are covered by Medicaid while they’re pregnant to continue using the government insurance program for a year after they give birth. Currently, pregnancy Medicaid, as it’s called, cuts off two months postpartum. As a result, some women using Medicaid missed postpartum check-ups. The short time limit is seen as contributing to maternal illness and death.

Medicaid covers about half of the state’s births. Securing the 10-month extension was a priority for doctors and other health professionals.  

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake)

The budget proposal includes $125 million for repairs and renovations to UNC buildings, and money for new construction on UNC campuses. The proposal dedicates $21.5 million for a new Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University in Greenville, and $18.25 million for a UNC-NC State STEM building. 

Robinson said state budgets regularly shortchange Historically Black Colleges and Universities..  

“To me, it looks like if you give the HBCUs a little, you have to give the non-HBCUs a whole lot more to compensate,” she said during a break in the meeting. “That’s what continues to go on, so no, I’m not pleased.” 

The budget passed out of committee on a voice vote with a smattering of ‘noes.’ 

“On the spending side, the budget shortchanges our teachers and fails to make needed investments in public education,” Chaudhari said in an interview after the meeting. “It shortchanges working families. It fails to make investments needed in childcare.” 

Chaudhuri said Senate leader Phil Berger made it clear in his news conference Monday that the budget was designed with an eye toward negotiations with the House and the Governor. “That means it has to be a bare-bones budget,” Chaudhuri said, “Which it is.” 

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Lynn Bonner
Lynn Bonner

Investigative Reporter Lynn Bonner covers the state legislature and politics, as well as elections, the state budget, public and mental health, safety net programs and issues of racial equality.