The N.C. Senate took a final 37-13 vote on the state budget compromise Wednesday, leaving two House votes and Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature as the remaining hurdles for the spending plan.
The $21.74 billion budget’s passage was expected after an initial 33-16 vote on Tuesday afternoon. But the final tally drew support from three rural Democrats who’d voted against the budget a day before.
The Democrats who voted yes were Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram of Northampton County, Sen. Ben Clark of Raeford and Sen. Jane Smith of Lumberton. All Senate Republicans also supported the budget.
“The reason I voted no yesterday was because we didn’t have time to read the darn thing,” said Smith, who represents Columbus and Robeson counties. “I cannot in good conscience vote for something where I don’t know what’s in there.”
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The budget bill was first posted online at 11:30 p.m. Monday. Smith said she’d gone to bed at 11 and had a speaking engagement in Whiteville the following morning. “I got here (Tuesday) without any time to read,” she said.
By Wednesday’s final vote, Smith said she’d reviewed the budget and decided that the good outweighed the bad. She supports a plan to increase sales tax revenue for rural counties by adding new taxes on repair, maintenance and installation services. Projections show Columbus and Robeson counties would each get about $2 million in new revenue.
“They’re both very poor counties, and that will be a big help for us,” Smith said. “In Robeson County, we haven’t built a new school since 1983, and we have 115 mobile units.”
The sales tax plan has prompted concern from urban and tourism counties that wouldn’t get a share of the $84.8 million in new revenue.
Smith said she also voted yes because the budget keeps funding for elementary teacher assistants and driver’s education. But she said she’s concerned the compromise didn’t provide cost-of-living increases to state retirees or a 2 percent raise proposed for teachers and other state employees. Instead, state employees will get a $750 bonus this year.
“There are still a lot of things I am not happy about,” she said. “We still have not put enough back in education in North Carolina.”
After a 75-minute debate before the first vote Tuesday, only two senators spoke Wednesday before the final tally. Senate budget writer Harry Brown briefly recapped the highlights.
“I think it’s a good bill – it does a lot for education, it gives tax reform to our citizens, and it gives a lot of help to our justice system,” he said.
Sen. Floyd McKissick of Durham was the only Democrat who spoke during the five-minute floor debate. McKissick blasted a budget provision that cuts state funding for a planned $1.5 billion light-rail line from Durham to Chapel Hill. The budget caps state money for light rail to $500,000 per project, and leaders in Orange and Durham counties say it would kill the project.
“It’s hidden in the budget, because you’re got to go to the special provisions, and you’ve got to find four lines,” McKissick said. “It’s to stop a project that’s been on the drawing board for two decades from going forward.”
The provision wasn’t in either the House or Senate original budgets, so it hasn’t been debated until this week. And McKissick said he couldn’t figure out which legislator proposed it – transportation budget writers in both chambers told him they weren’t responsible.
“It’s that type of lack of access to information that I find deeply troubling,” he said. “We shouldn’t have this cloak-and-dagger process going into our spending decisions. It’s the wrong thing to do.”
With the budget passed in the Senate, the House will debate and vote on the bill Thursday. Its final vote will take place at 12:01 a.m. Friday, giving McCrory hours to sign the bill before the temporary budget expires.