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$30 billion NC budget giving Republicans new powers nears final legislative approval


$30 billion NC budget giving Republicans new powers nears final legislative approval

Sep 22, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Lynn Bonner
$30 billion NC budget giving Republicans new powers nears final legislative approval
NC Senate votes on $30 billion state budget Thursday. (Photo: Lynn Bonner)

Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly used the state budget to give themselves more power while at the same time shielding legislators’ records from the public. 

Provisions in the budget exempt legislators from the state public records law, letting them withhold their documents from public view. Senate Republicans claimed that the budget codifies current practice. 

“The legislators, they’re not hiding anything more than they had in the past,” explained Republican Sen. Brent Jackson, a Senate budget committee chairman. 

Additionally, the budget repeals the law that makes draft redistricting maps and other records related to the creation of districts public after new districts are approved. The legislature is preparing to approve new congressional and legislative districts next month that will be used in the 2024 elections.

“The only reason to hide redistricting records is if you are violating federal law,” Sen. Graig Meyer said during the Senate budget debate Thursday afternoon. 

“Retaining redistricting records is no true burden,” said Meyer, an Orange County Democrat. “There is no compelling reason for redistricting records to be hidden from the public.”  

The House debated and voted on the $30 billion budget Thursday afternoon and took its final vote Friday morning, shortly after midnight. The House’s 69-40 vote Thursday afternoon included five Democrats voting for the budget: Reps. Cecil Brockman, Carla Cunningham, Garland Pierce, Shelly Willingham, and Michael Wray. The House Friday morning vote was 70-40. 

The Senate gave the budget preliminary approval in a party-line vote of 28-19, Thursday afternoon, and plans to take its final vote Friday before sending it to Gov. Roy Cooper. 

Passing a budget will allow the state to expand Medicaid, a longtime goal for Cooper and Democrats in the legislature. The legislature approved Medicaid expansion in March, but made it contingent on state budget approval.  

Rep. Donny Lambeth (R-Forsyth Co.)
Rep. Donny Lambeth (R-Forsyth) stressed the budget would “help so many people.” (Photo: NCGA video stream)

As he appealed for votes Friday morning, Rep. Donny Lambeth, a Winston-Salem Republican and senior chairman of the House budget committee, said the budget with Medicaid expansion and its spending on health and mental health would “help so many people.”

“There’s a lot of people on my side who are going to hold their nose because expansion is in there,” Lambeth said. “The big picture is we can get this done and move on.”

Democrats focused on what they argued are the budget’s flaws: state employee raises that won’t help attract new workers to agencies where more than 20% of jobs are vacant, tax cuts that will put the state in financial trouble in a few years, the massive expansion of the private school voucher program, and Republican legislators influencing the judiciary.  

Most state employees will receive raises of 4% this year and 3% next year, while the state’s highest paid elected officials and appellate court judges will see substantially bigger bumps. 

The Council of State, which includes the Labor Commissioner, Auditor, Agriculture Commissioner, Secretary of State, Lieutenant Governor, Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner, Attorney General, and the Superintendent of Public Instruction, will receive 15% raises over two years. The governor’s salary will increase 22.5% over two years. 

Raises for top judges and court officers include 18% raises over two years for members of the state Supreme Court. 

Senate Democratic leader Dan Blue called the big raises for top officials “spitting in the eyes of state employees who we so depend on.”

“We ignored the needs of the people who hit the ground running every morning and make the state work,” he said. 

Senate leader Phil Berger told reporters after the budget vote that elected officials in North Carolina make less than their counterparts in other states, and it was time to address it. 

Teachers would receive average raises of 7% over two years. Rep. Laura Budd, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, said the budget should have done more for teachers.

Money going to the school voucher program in one year would be enough to double teacher raises, she said.

“The strength of a community is reflected in the strength of its public schools,” Budd said. “We’re going to continue to undermine public education and local economies. This is not the legacy we should be leaving. We can do better, we should have done better.”

Republican legislators’ moves to extend their influence into the administrative and judicial branches of state government make the North Carolina legislature the most powerful in the country, giving it “abilities and rights that have never been seen or contemplated by the makers of the Constitution,’ said House Democratic leader Robert Reives. 

The budget gives legislative leaders the ability to appoint 10 special Superior Court judges to eight-year terms. Until now, the governor nominated all special Superior Court judges. 

The judges Republicans choose will “simply answer to you, the North Carolina General Assembly,” said Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, a Mecklenburg County Democrat. 

“We must ask ourselves, is this the justice system we want in North Carolina, a justice system that can be controlled and manipulated by a select few?”