Senate Republicans unveiled their two-year budget plan Tuesday morning, calling for raises for state employees but also setting up what could be a contentious negotiating process with the Democratic governor and Republican-controlled House.
Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) said he does not support expanding Medicaid, which Gov. Roy Cooper (D) has made a central focus in recent months.
Berger said he anticipates the Senate voting on the budget by the end of the week. The House passed its version earlier this month. Berger said the two chambers aim to send a negotiated budget to Cooper by June 15.
“We’ve got two choices. They can take the Senate/House budget and that be the budget and the governor can sign it. Or, we can be here without a budget which goes back to a continuing resolution on what we’ve got now: no raises, no nothing,” said Sen. Jerry Tillman (R- 26th District).
Senators held a press conference on the budget Tuesday morning but unveiled further details later in the day.
The Senate version of the budget is a $24 billion spending plan that calls for an average 3.5 percent average raise for teachers over the next two years, which is below both what the House and Cooper proposed. It also includes $300 for each teacher to spend on school supplies. A similar proposal has faced criticism from the North Carolina Association of Educators, which has said the General Assembly has not funded education adequately, leading to teachers buying their own supplies.
Most full-time state employees would receive a 5 percent raise over two years, which is more than what the House and Cooper proposed.
Sen. Wiley Nickel (D-Wake) said because the budget proposal does not expand Medicaid or provide what he views as enough spending on education, he’ll vote no.
“We have to sit down together with Senate Democrats and the governor and Senate Republicans to find a solution that works for all of North Carolina. And, I’m not going to vote for a budget that does not include Medicaid expansion,” he said.
The spending plan calls for $3 million to go toward the testing of sexual assault evidence kits in an effort to clear the statewide backlog. Last year, just over 15,000 of those kits remained untested. Some communities, such as Durham, have worked to clear their individual backlogs since then.
“I’m not writing a blank check here, but I am saying we will continue to revisit this issue. As you well know, we’ll revisit the budget next session. So, we can tweak it as needed,” said Sen. Brent Jackson (R-10th).
Monika Johnson-Hostler, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said getting the funding in place is critical because the backlog is a nationwide issue. While there is no federal mandate on tracking the evidence kits, the Joyful Heart Foundation, which has launched a campaign to end the backlog, estimates there are hundreds of thousands of them across the country.
“I think the logistics will be the real test for us considering it’s not just our state. It’s all the states at one time going to the labs. So, I think that’s some logistics that we’ll have to work out based on the funding,” Johnson-Hostler said.
What’s unclear is whether the legislature and governor will reach a compromise on the budget by the time the new fiscal year begins on July 1.
Ford Porter, a spokesman for Cooper said Tuesday morning: “This budget leaves out Medicaid expansion that would close the health care coverage gap and it shortchanges public schools in exchange for more corporate tax cuts. The Governor hopes to continue working with the House and Senate on a budget that does more to help hard-working North Carolinians.”
If state leaders are unable to reach an agreement, a continuing resolution would take effect keeping state funding at its current levels until a budget is finalized.
Jackson said that would impact the proposed funding for clearing the rape kit backlog.
“State government will continue to operate. In that particular instance, though, it will still be in limbo,” he said.