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NC lawmakers give state budget preliminary OK

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RALEIGH, N.C. -

Voters made a choice to put smaller-government Republicans in charge of the General Assembly, and the state's $20.6 billion budget for this year is the expression of that, lawmakers said Tuesday.
    
The state House voted 66-53 to give the spending plan for state operations preliminary approval on Tuesday, with 10 disaffected Republicans voting against the measure. The Senate voted 31-17 to approve the measure in a preliminary vote. Final votes are set for Wednesday on the spending plan written by Republicans, who won large majorities in both chambers and a political ally in GOP Gov. Pat McCrory in elections last year.
    
"The state's budget reflects the aspirations of its people. The citizens of North Carolina called for sweeping change in 2010 and reaffirmed their call for reform in 2012," said Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, a House budget co-chairman.
    
The final version of the state budget "heeds the call of our citizens, and that is for a budget that is realistic, that is reasonable, and that is responsible," he said.
    
The budget includes no pay raises for teachers or state employees, but gives them an additional five vacation days. It sets aside $524 million for tax cuts over the next two years. The plan cuts $286 million this year and $246 million next year in funding for classroom teachers by revising teacher-student ratios. It creates vouchers that allow students meeting income limits to attend private schools with the help of up to $4,200 per year in grants.
    
The budget closes unused prisons, provides funding for dozens of currently vacant state trooper positions, pumps another $434 million into Medicaid health care spending for the poor, tucks $269 million into a savings reserve, and still leaves another $250 million unspent as a hedge against further surprises or natural disasters.
    
Dollar stressed that the budget also takes the next step in trying to right a historic wrong by offering $10 million for one-time payments to survivors of North Carolina's forced-sterilization program. The state's eugenics program forcibly sterilized about 7,600 people whom officials deemed feeble-minded or otherwise undesirable between 1929 and 1974. Some of the victims were as young as 10 and chosen because they were promiscuous or did not get along with their schoolmates.
    
"Never in the last century of our state has the power of government been so misused," Dollar said. "Today is the day when history will mark this General Assembly did what was morally right in the eyes of God."
    
Dollar challenged Democrats to vote for the budget if only because it included the eugenics compensation.
    
"Are you going to join hands across the partisan divide and bring some measure of justice for these victims?" he said. "My friends on the Democratic side, are you willing to shoulder your share of the load. Will you sacrifice your partisan pride to do what is morally right today?"
    
Democrats argued that every budget is a series of choices and trade-offs. While Republicans were cutting taxes and taking pride in fiscal responsibility of the public purse, they decided to spend $800,000 this year and $1.5 million next year for the state Commerce Department to develop a "comprehensive branding strategy" to promote it as an agreeable business location, said Rep. Larry Hall, D-Durham. That would have been enough to pay salaries for scores of teachers, said Hall, the House minority leader.
    
"You're not going to go into any community in this state and find people who say, 'Yes, I want my schools to have less ability to produce good citizens. I want them to have less opportunity, less support in school, less ability to achieve,' " Hall said. "I don't think you're going to find those neighborhoods in North Carolina and I don't think this budget is the aspiration of the citizens of North Carolina. I certainly want to dispel that myth."
    
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