The North Carolina House gave initial approval Wednesday to a budget plan through mid-2015 that Republicans contend advances reform and responsibility but that Democrats say harms citizens recklessly.
The Republican-led House voted 77-41 to adopt the proposal written mostly by its leaders after seven hours of debate and votes on more than 25 amendments that made few adjustments to the measure.
An amendment to remove a provision that would create private school grants for thousands of school children starting this fall was defeated after impassioned debate on the condition of the public schools. Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, gave a rare floor speech to preserve the "opportunity scholarship" program within the budget.
A final House vote on the full budget was expected Thursday, three weeks after the Republican-controlled Senate approved its proposal, which spends almost exactly the same amount as the House, or nearly $20.6 billion. But the two chambers differ in dozens of ways on how to spend the money. The two chambers should begin negotiations in earnest next week with the aim of getting a compromise to the end of the month to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who will have a role in negotiations.
Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake and senior co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the 300-plus page plan builds on the new governor's call for retooling and reorganizing state government. The bill sets aside money for McCrory's transportation funding initiative and provides the first step toward him creating a new nonprofit corporation to perform many Commerce Department duties.
"We think that the spirit of reform has come to our state capital," Dollar told colleagues. "We feel like our budget has caught the winds of reform."
A top Democratic leader said the measure reflects the determination of Republicans to provide tax cuts to the rich. The bill envisions the loss of roughly $300 million to pay for a tax overhaul, the details of which passed the House in another bill earlier this week. Republicans have released data that they say shows most taxpayers will get a tax break.
"The real victims in this budget are the middle-class families," said House Minority Leader Larry Hall, D-Durham, adding the tax reductions mean no money for employee pay raises and less money for public school teacher assistants. "This budget is not responsible to the people of North Carolina. It's not responsible to the children of North Carolina."
Reps. Bill Brisson of Bladen County and Ken Waddell of Columbus County were the only two Democrats to vote Wednesday for the budget.
Rep. Robert Brawley of Iredell County was the only Republican to vote no. Brawley publicly aired a dispute with Tillis on other matters recently and resigned from his finance committee chairmanship.
The chambers' competing budget proposals for next year are within $12 million of each other, and both set aside $1.2 billion over two years to cover rising Medicaid costs. Budget-writers said those requirements prevented them from expanding programs elsewhere, such as providing pay increases to teachers and state employees.
But the plans disagree significantly on spending levels for the public schools and the University of North Carolina system.
While the House favors spending $118 million more than the Senate on salaries for teacher assistants in early grades, the Senate version attempts to do away with a recent requirement that school districts return hundreds of millions of dollars annually to the state as a cost-cutting measure.
The House also would require the UNC system to find an additional $77 million in spending reductions across its 17 campuses and administration. The House budget also would create a new program designed to encourage lower-performing students admitted to a UNC school to attend community college for two years before enrolling to boost graduation rates and encourage spending.
House Republicans rejected a Democratic floor amendment to prevent tuition at a handful of UNC campuses from rising a proposed 12.3 percent in 2014-15. The amendment would have lowered the tuition increase to 6 percent at all campuses.
The House budget would spend $8 million to address the potential loss of personal care services through Medicaid for as many as 2,000 group home residents in danger of losing that coverage at the end of the month due to federally mandated requirements. But the House proposal only covers one year. The Senate provided no such solution in its budget.
Both chambers would close several prisons and juvenile justice facilities to reflect declining offender populations, but the spending plans differ slightly on which ones should be shuttered.