News: CJ Exclusives

General Assembly leaders battle it out in news conferences focusing on budget stalemate

The General Assembly is going home without raising teacher pay and without passing a full budget. 

During the Tuesday, Jan. 14 session, Senate Republicans failed to garner enough votes to override the vetoes of two bills. The veto overrides for Senate Bill 354, Strengthening Educators’ Pay, and Senate Bill 553, Regulatory Reform Act of 2019, were defeated strictly along party lines. The legislature requires a three-fifths majority to override a veto. 

The vetoed budget bill, House Bill 966, didn’t come up for a vote. 

Senate Democrats showed animosity toward Republicans’ teacher pay offer during the session. When the veto of S.B. 534 came up for a vote, the minority party stood unified in opposition. Their reasons varied. Some said the pay raises weren’t enough. Others said the bill left retirees and non-certified employees — like bus drivers and janitors — behind.

Senate Republicans said their Democratic colleagues had a choice: vote for the pay raises in the bill or go home with nothing. Senate Democrats chose nothing. 

With the veto override of S.B. 534 defeated, teachers might not see raises until 2021. 

“Public officials are elected to do the hard work of governing and find compromises, but Republican leaders are refusing to negotiate a teacher pay raise and saying that they are not going to pass any budget at all this year,” Ford Porter, Gov. Roy Cooper’s spokesman said in a statement. 

Republican leaders need to end their partisan obstruction and negotiate in good faith with the governor, Porter said. 

Negotiations over teacher pay probably won’t happen with Cooper anytime soon, Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said. 

“You know the definition of insanity. It’s doing the same thing over and over again,” Berger said. “I don’t think we are going to take another swipe at that.”

Much of what was said on the floor was a repeat of news conferences held earlier in the day. 

N.C. Senate Republicans and Democrats held dueling audiences with the press Tuesday morning, laying blame on each other for the continuing stalemate over a state budget.

Berger said Senate Democrats have made it clear they plan to stick with Cooper and uphold his budget veto. 

Political loyalty to Cooper and his Medicaid expansion plan is more important than funding teacher pay raises and school construction, and paying for a new Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, Berger said. 

A second year budget could include everything left out of the series of mini-budgets the General Assembly passed last year. 

But don’t hold your breath, the Senate leader said. 

“I am prepared to negotiate a full second-year budget with the governor as long as he drops his Medicaid ultimatum,” Berger said. 

Twenty-one Democrats were committed to upholding the governor’s veto, Senate Democratic leader Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, said during his own news conference. 

But Blue said he’s willing to discuss Medicaid expansion separately if it means moving forward on core issues such as educator pay. 

“Compromise is not a dirty word,” Blue said. 

Cooper vetoed the $24 billion General Fund budget June 28. He criticized the Republican-led General Assembly for prioritizing tax cuts over investments in public education. But the lack of money for Medicaid expansion in the budget drove Cooper’s veto. 

Cooper made it clear that, without Medicaid expansion, any negotiations on moving forward with the budget are moot. 

While the House rejected Cooper’s veto in a surprise vote Sept. 11, the Senate waited to make an attempt.

In lieu of a full budget, the General Assembly passed several mini-budgets to fund items with broad bipartisan support. An attempt to pass a mini-budget with teacher pay raises failed. Democrats rejected the offer, in part because the measure linked teacher raises to an override of the governor’s veto. 

“No one’s livelihood should be used as political leverage,” Blue said.

Blue, surrounded by representatives of the N.C. Association of Educators representatives, chided Republican lawmakers for failing to properly fund public education and for not giving teachers a big enough pay raise.

He pointed to the recently released WestEd report, which calls for a significant increase of public education funding. 

Republican lawmakers originally promised a 3.9% teacher pay raise over two years in the budget; Cooper proposed a 9% pay raise over two years. In S.B. 534 Republicans again proposed the 3.9% pay increase, but offered to raise the amount to 4.4% over two years if the Senate voted to override the budget veto.

Senate Democrats aren’t satisfied with Republicans offer, Blue said, and tying the higher raise to the override is tantamount to extortion. 

Lawmakers concluded the one-day session with the promise of returning again on April 28. The vetoed budget bill remains in limbo. Without a new budget, spending remains at 2018 levels. 

“Democrats will have to face their constituents in the coming months and explain their choices,” Berger said in a news release following adjournment. “We tried for months to negotiate a workable budget, but the Governor wouldn’t agree to any budget without Medicaid expansion.”