NC House Democrats hope they can shape the final state budget
Published August 26, 2021
By Lynn Bonner
Gov. Cooper remains excluded from negotiations, but some members of his party are trying to change that
Rep. Garland Pierce said his support for the $25.7 billion budget written by House Republicans is rooted in a meeting between local elected officials from the Democrat’s rural district and House Speaker Tim Moore and his staff where the local leaders laid out their budget hopes.
A budget proposal that included $31 million over two years for a new Hoke County courthouse and money for community centers and a dam repair in the Scotland County sealed the long-serving Democrat’s ‘yes’ vote.
“My folks back home encouraged me to do that, so that’s what I did,” Pierce said in an interview this week. “Will we ever have these type funds again? I don’t know.”
Taking advantage of the state’s robust financial health, House budget writers filled their spending plan with local and university construction projects.
Legislators started the budget year looking at about $6 billion unspent, mostly because an impasse between Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republican-controlled legislature led to a failure to pass a comprehensive budget for the past two years. This year’s federal economic relief law, the American Rescue Plan, sent more than $5 billion to the state.
A closed process that’s two months late
The state is still doesn’t have a budget for this year, and it’s overdue. The fiscal year started July 1. Government services are running on the same amount of money they had last year. But raises that state employees and teachers have been expecting are not yet showing up in their bank accounts, billions in federal economic rescue funds haven’t been distributed, and promises of an additional $1 billion for expanded broadband access are frozen in amber.
Rep. Garland E. Pierce
Both chambers of the state legislature are controlled by Republicans, but the House and state Senate passed very different versions of a state budget. The spending plans are now in the hands of negotiators who will work to iron out the differences. The compromise will then go to a vote in both chambers. The legislature will then send the budget to Gov. Roy Cooper, who can sign or veto it. Cooper is not a part of the negotiations at this point.
The House and Senate budgets passed by veto-proof margins in both chambers, 72-41 in the House and 32-17 in the Senate. Those margins won’t necessarily hold in the face of a Cooper veto. The Senate passed the 2019 budget with a 33-15 veto-proof vote, with four Democrats voting for it. Republicans could not muster enough votes after Cooper’s veto to get the budget in place.
The 13 House and Senate Democrats who voted for their chamber’s budgets this year are members of the conference committee, meaning they’ll be asked to sign off on the compromise budget, called a conference report, before it goes back the House and Senate floors for votes.
“There’s a saying in Raleigh ‘if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.’ I’m at the table,” Pierce said. “Thirteen Democrats, can we make a difference in the conference report? Maybe yes, maybe no.” Supporting the budget at this stage demonstrates that Democrats are willing to work with Republicans on a budget that Cooper will sign, he said.
How much say Democrats will have in a final budget is unclear. All the consequential budget work is done behind closed doors.
The budget conference committee has nearly 70 voting House and Senate members, and as of Monday, Pierce hadn’t been told about any meetings. Negotiations are usually left to a small number of committee members.
Both versions of the budget are stuffed with policies that have nothing to do with money. They limit a governor’s powers in an emergency and eliminate an attorney general’s ability to independently decide to sign on to some federal lawsuits. The House version would set up a system of local tribunals to hear public complaints about school course materials.
Democrats seek to articulate a different vision
Rep. Brandon Lofton
Rep. Brandon Lofton, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, proposed an amendment to erase some of those provisions from the budget during the House floor debate. The amendment failed.
He also asked his House colleagues to consider a sweeping 111-page amendment that would have allowed low-income adults to enroll in Medicaid, paid for the first two years of the court-ordered plan to improve public education, and raised teacher and state employee pay, among other provisions. Republicans voted against discussing it, saying it violated self-imposed budget rules.
House Democrats who studied this year’s state budget needs contributed to the expansive amendment. The legislature’s fiscal research staff calculated how much money would be left over: $2.8 billion in the first year and $132 million in the second. The amendment didn’t touch the cuts to personal and corporate income tax rates Republicans have in their budget.
“It was a pretty comprehensive list of things we could be doing to improve our state and still balance the budget,” Lofton said in an interview.
With its surplus, the state can afford to address long-standing needs in education and healthcare, Lofton said. The budget Republicans wrote “simply does not meet the moment,” he said.
There was no chance that House Republicans would have approved the expansive amendment, even if they had allowed debate and a vote.
House Democratic Leader Robert Reives presses Republicans for meaningful negotiations in crafting a final state budget.
House Democratic Leader Robert Reives said the document was a way to formally declare what the Democratic caucus considers important. House Democrats didn’t see the full budget until the day before voting started, he said, when it was released to the public.
“It’s the only way we can as a caucus communicate what our priorities are,” he said.
It’s possible that some House Democrats who voted for the budget this month will change their minds if Cooper vetoes it, Reives said, but he doesn’t know how many are open to sustaining a veto.
“It’s hard to count heads on a bill that doesn’t exist,” he said. “The final budget will not look like the House budget at all.”
Democrats are pushing to get Cooper looped into budget negotiations. Cooper’s meaningful involvement is one of the conditions that will help get a budget approved this year, said Rep. Billy Richardson.
Richardson, a Fayetteville Democrat, voted for the House budget. The entire Cumberland County delegation ended up supporting budgets put up for votes in their chambers.
With its spending on infrastructure, local projects, raises for teachers and state employees, and funding for historically Black universities, Richardson said the House budget reminded him of Democrats’ budgets from the 1990s.
Rep. Billy Richardson
The House budget puts $14 million over two years toward a $40 million investment in dorms at Fayetteville State University, about $22 million toward a $63 million college of education, and includes $10 million for a parking deck at the university, along with $38.8 million in repairs and renovations.
“Makes it hard not to vote for it if you’re from Cumberland County,” Richardson said.
At this point, the budget is in the middle of process that has two or three more steps, Richardson said.
He predicts the House will have enough votes to pass a final budget if spending on local projects stays in, a lot of the provisions that don’t have anything to do with money come out, and if Cooper has a meaningful say in what it looks like.
“The main thing we need to do as a group, we need to make sure the Governor has a place at the table and that his viewpoints are considered,” Richardson said.