N.C. Senate Democrats should try democracy

There's much to like – and some things to dislike – in the state Senate's $21.4 billion supplemental spending plan approved on a 33-16 vote Wednesday and sent back to the House Thursday after a final vote.

It raises teacher salaries by 3 percent, not enough to reach the national average but still significant at a time when many workers are getting no raises. And it boosts appropriations for the university system to help meet enrollment needs. It has no direct tax increases and boosts spending by about 3.4 percent, considerably less than the hikes in previous years.

On the down side, the Senate doesn't give schools enough money to offset a big increase in fuel costs, and it fails to match the $50 million the House provided to help four state trust funds leverage their money to buy land and otherwise protect green space for recreation, water quality, habitat and farmland preservation. And the Senate calls for $672 million in borrowing for construction projects without voter approval – more than the $550 million the House proposes for such projects.

These differences will be worked out in a conference committee with House members. But the most disturbing thing about the Senate budget is how it was developed and passed. Unlike the House, which built its budget proposal in a deliberate fashion and gave its members time to read the budget and hours to debate it on the floor, the Senate moved quickly and, some would say, ruthlessly.

It's no secret that Democrats dominate the Senate and get their way. That's politics. But this was no debate at all. Democrats tabled Republicans' amendments for the most part – they approved one by Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, to study a pre-K program. Then they shut off debate entirely after Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, D-Cumberland, called for a vote. The only real question left to both Democrats and Republicans was whether to vote yes or no. Democrats all voted yes; all but three Republicans voted no.

No wonder assistant Senate Republican leader Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, was fuming. “It looks to me like it's still the Cold War, and we've copied the Russian system,” he told the News & Observer's Dan Kane after the budget vote.

Cutting off debate and denying consideration of alternatives potentially deprives the state of good ideas on how to do things. Many legislators, including some Democrats, have no other opportunity to study the bill and offer alternatives if they cannot do so on the Senate floor.

Democrats have ruled the legislature for a long time. They have the numbers. But the House is managing to conduct its operations while still giving the opposition party an opportunity to air some of its ideas. The Senate should do likewise.