The state Senate passed a $21.2 billion budget Friday night that makes cuts in K-12 education to pay for hefty teacher raises and adds $206 million to pay for Medicaid while cutting elderly and disabled beneficiaries from the rolls.
The budget won preliminary approval in a 32-15 vote largely along party lines. One Democrat, Gene McLaurin of Rockingham, voted for it.
The Senate took its final 32-10 vote shortly after midnight Saturday morning, sending the budget to the House for consideration.
Democrats raised objections to the education cuts, the removal of thousands of elderly and disabled residents from Medicaid, and the transfer of the State Bureau of Investigation from the state Attorney General’s office to the Department of Public Safety.
Democrats argued that the high teacher raises the majority Republicans are touting amount to a shell game, but Senate leader Phil Berger said that the 11-percent average increases would catch the eyes of the nation and move the state up from its embarrassing position near the bottom of national averages to the middle.
“Make no mistake about it,” said Berger, an Eden Republican. “You vote against this budget, you vote against a substantial raise for teachers. The centerpiece of that budget is that raise.”
In order to get the raise, teachers must agree to give up their tenure and longevity pay. Teachers who don’t give up their tenure won’t get raises in the budget year that begins July 1.
Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat, suggested the raises were “tricks and shenanigans,” and that teachers wouldn’t fall for them.
Blue said he wanted to work with Republicans to raise teacher salaries, and asked them “not to play this shell game that’s being played in this budget bill.”
To help pay for nearly $470 million in teacher raises, the proposed budget cuts $233 million from teaching assistants, the equivalent of 7,400 jobs. The state will no longer pay for teaching assistants in second- and third-grade classrooms, restricting funding for those jobs to kindergarten and first-grade classes.
In an amendment, senators voted to set up a $5 million scholarship program to help teaching assistants who lose their jobs.
The budget does not increase funding for textbooks, which is now at $15 per child.
Sen. Malcolm Graham, a Charlotte Democrat, said Republicans were coming out of the “echo chamber” of their own caucus meetings to make substantial shifts in state policy without input from the public or Democratic senators.
The Senate had no public hearings or subcommittee meetings on the budget, which was made public late Wednesday night.
“We are making substantial changes in how state government operates, particularly Medicaid,” Graham said. “Let’s have some other voices involved in that discussion.”
Senate Republicans are frustrated with operations of the state Medicaid office, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. They want to separate the Medicaid office, which oversees the $13 billion health insurance program for poor children, their parents, the elderly and disabled, from DHHS. The state pays about one-third of the cost, and the federal government picks up the rest.
One of the issues Senate Republicans have is the unreliability of Medicaid budget projections. The Senate thinks Gov. Pat McCrory wildly underestimated Medicaid’s costs for next year. The Senate adds $206 million to the Medicaid budget, yet begins to move thousands of elderly, blind and disabled residents from the rolls.
People who are on a state/county assistance program that pays room and board in assisted living homes automatically qualify for Medicaid. Medicaid is used to pay for care such as bathing, eating and other services. The Senate would end that practice of linking Medicaid to state/county assistance, meaning that thousands of people would lose health insurance.
Sen. Ralph Hise, a Spruce Pine Republican, said those losing Medicaid could find insurance on the exchange set up under the Affordable Care Act.
But Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, suggested that solution was “ironic and unrealistic.”
“Let’s create a budget that respects our teachers and does not throw our citizens who are blind, disabled and elderly to the curb,” he said.
Republicans had to make difficult choices, said Sen. Harry Brown, a lead budget writer from Jacksonville. The state goes beyond federal mandates in the Medicaid services it offers and the people it covers, he said.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in this chamber who doesn’t feel for people in need,” Brown said.
The state has added more than $2 billion to the Medicaid budget in the last three years, he said. The increases have come as the legislature filled in budget holes and paid for more people.
For years, Medicaid has been the priority and other services have had to endure cuts for the sake of the insurance program, he said.