Gov. Bev Perdue uncapped her veto pen again this week and struck down two Republican-backed bills that would have required state employees to pay a portion of their health premiums and allow community colleges to opt out of federal loan programs.
It was the exclamation point on a hot-and-heavy legislative week that also saw the first public steps in the budgeting process. On Tuesday, House subcommittees released preliminary cuts totaling $2 billion, eliciting howls of protest from public sector groups and liberal advocacy organizations.
The proposals would trim 15.5 percent from the public university system and 9 percent from public schools, in addition to deep cuts to other state agencies. Also impacted would be programs sacrosanct to the Democrats, including zeroing out Smart Start, the early childhood development program championed by former Gov. Jim Hunt.
The cuts run far deeper than those Perdue proposed in February.
House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said his chamber was about a week behind schedule on finishing the budget. But both chambers still are on track to have a spending plan passed by early June, he said.
“We expect most of the decisions for the House deliberations to be completed by the end of next week,” Tillis said.
Democrats decried the cuts at a press conference Thursday. “Teachers and faculty are the gardens of the landscape of the human race, and we are talking about throwing thousands of them out of work,” said Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland.
Perdue’s red ink
Another indication of rising tensions between Perdue and Republicans came when the governor vetoed two GOP-championed bills Wednesday.
The first — House Bill 7, Comm. Colleges/Opt Out of Fed’l Loan Program, would allow North Carolina community colleges to opt out of a federal loan program. The second — Senate Bill 265, State Health Plan/Appropriations and Transfer — would have required state employees to shoulder a part of their health insurance premiums. The goal: prevent the State Health Plan from going bankrupt.
In her veto message, Perdue claimed that both measures would have harmed students and teachers.
House Republicans are four members shy of enough support to reverse the vetoes. The Senate is a different matter, because Republicans have more than a three-fifths majority in that body. On Thursday, the Senate GOP caucus took advantage of that edge by overriding Perdue’s veto of S.B. 265.
In another instance of strife between Perdue and Republicans, the House and Senate rushed through a bill late this week that would renew federal unemployment benefits set to expire Saturday.
In a maneuver designed to outfox Perdue on the budget, Republicans included a provision directing the governor to continue the current fiscal year’s budget — with spending limited to 87 percent of current levels — into the next fiscal year if a budget is not approved by the July 1 deadline. The aim is to discourage Perdue from vetoing the GOP’s final budget.
Democrats balked, claiming that Republicans were using poor people as a bargaining chip for getting their spending priorities through. Perdue labeled the tactic “extortion.”
Republicans countered by daring Perdue to veto the bill. If she does, she could bear the political fallout of expiring unemployment benefits for 36,000 North Carolinians.
House and Senate leaders plan to ratify the bill Saturday morning so that Perdue doesn’t have time to veto it without the clock running out on the benefits.
Charters, unborn victims
Although not garnering as much media attention, the General Assembly took action on two other contentious bills this week.
The Senate voted unanimously Thursday not to concur with the House’s version of Senate Bill 8, No Cap on Number of Charter Schools.
As crafted in the Senate, the bill would have removed the existing 100-school cap on charters and made a handful of other reforms. The House retooled the bill in response to Democratic objections — adding concessions on transportation, food, capital funding, and oversight — to the point that it was unrecognizable compared with the original version.
The lead sponsor of S.B. 8, Wake County Republican Sen. Richard Stevens, said he was concerned about the dozens of changes made in the House. “Those need some more dialogue and discussion,” he said. “Some of those were good changes, some of those I have some questions about.”
Speaking with reporters Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, claimed that Republicans were using the charter school bill to separate wealthy and poor students. “In the words of Stephen Colbert, [rich people] wouldn’t have to come and get that poverty all over them,” he said.
The bill now goes to a conference committee between the chambers where differences will be hammered out.
Meanwhile, House Bill 215, Unborn Victims of Violence Act/Ethen’s Law, passed the Senate in a bipartisan 45-4 vote Thursday. The measure would mirror federal law in recognizing a separate, unborn victim in the event of a violent attack on a pregnant woman.
Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, offered an amendment restricting the bill to unborn children 20 weeks or older. The original bill applies to fetuses from conception to birth. The proposed revision failed 36-13.
Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, also tried to amend the bill to require that an assailant have knowledge of the woman’s pregnancy during commission of the assault in order to be charged under the law. It failed 36-13.
H.B. 215 now goes back to the House for a concurrence vote.
Action on other bills
The following bills also saw movement this week:
• House Bill 498, Wake School Board Presiding Office Voting: Would allow Wake County School Board Chairman Ron Margiotta to vote in all cases. Presently, the chairman may only vote to break a tie between the eight other school board members. Passed by the House 70-46. Now goes to the Senate.
• Senate Bill 187, Outlaw Red Light Camera Systems: Would eliminate red-light cameras at intersections. Passed the Senate 29-18. Referred to the House Judiciary Committee. Tillis said there is general support in the House for the bill, and he doesn’t anticipate it becoming a partisan issue.
• Senate Bill 464, Debt Reduction Act of 2011: Would trim state indebtedness for capital improvement projects, including a horse farm in Rockingham County. Passed by the Senate 47-2. Now assigned to the House Rules Committee.
• Senate Joint Resolution 256, Pardon Governor Holden: Would pardon former North Carolina Gov. William Holden from an impeachment conviction in 1871 arising from his crack down on the Ku Klux Klan in Alamance and Caswell counties. Passed the Senate by unanimous voice vote. Now goes to the House.
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.