RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina government readied Tuesday for another face-off between Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republican legislature, this time over a final GOP budget deal with lots of raises and money saved for rainy days but one Cooper still blasted as “fiscally irresponsible.”
The two-year spending budget agreement reached by House and Senate Republicans also offers another round of income tax breaks and rate cuts, although most don’t take effect until 2019.
The General Assembly already has cut taxes by billions of dollars since 2013 and Cooper said the highest wage earners and corporations shouldn’t benefit further. Republicans counter that nearly all income tax filers would owe less, and 95,000 more would now owe nothing.
While legislative approval is fairly certain, Cooper still urged lawmakers from both parties to oppose the final product.
Not enough senators listened to him, as four Democrats joined all Republicans voting later Tuesday in giving the measure tentative approval. A final Senate vote was expected Wednesday, the same day House would begin their debate and votes.
Asked at a news conference if he would veto the budget agreement if legislators approved it, Cooper said: “I’ll let you know as soon as it hits my desk, but as you can see right now I think this budget is wrong for North Carolina.”
Republicans already hold veto-proof majorities in both chambers, meaning the final budget likely will become law if GOP legislators remain united despite a Cooper veto. GOP legislators already have overridden each of Cooper’s four vetoes.
Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, said the plan contains several items that Cooper sought and continues Republican policies that have helped the state economy grow.
The budget “strikes an appropriate balance between those funds that rightfully should go to state government to fund those obligations and the money that really ought to stay in the hands of the people that earned it,” Berger said during floor debate before the 38-11 vote.
Cooper and GOP lawmakers became engaged in a policy and political battle a week after former Gov. Pat McCrory conceded to Cooper in a close race. Legislators have passed laws eroding Cooper’s powers. Cooper fought back in court with mixed results to date.
On the budget, Cooper had urged House and Senate leaders to agree to spend more than the competing $22.9 billion bills approved in the spring.
The final agreement, unveiled Monday night, does spend another $130 million, but Cooper said it failed to funnel that money toward even higher teacher pay than the average 3.3 percent raises inside, or toward more funds to treat opioid addiction. Most of the signature initiatives in his budget recommendations in March also weren’t included.
While GOP budget-writers sprinkled millions of dollars across the state in the final plan to favored nonprofits and programs – critics call it pork – they also would order Cooper’s office to cut administrative costs by 19 percent over two years. The reduction wasn’t in either the House or Senate version of the budget.
“I’m sure that’s political spite or something,” Cooper said.
GOP Rep. Justin Burr of Stanly County, one of the House’s top budget writers, said GOP lawmakers believed “efficiencies could be found” in the governor’s office and denied it amounted to political punishment.
The budget would spend 3.1 percent more than the current-year’s budget. Cooper had wanted a 5.1 percent increase. The proposal locates another $363 million for the state’s emergency reserves, $125 million for government building repairs and another $100 million for Hurricane Matthew recovery. Teachers, principals and state employees would get raises and retirees got a permanent pension cost-of-living allowance.
Republicans gave Cooper and other Democrats reasons to oppose the final measure.
The budget expanded the use of taxpayer money for more K-12 students to attend private schools by creating new “personal education savings accounts” for young people with disabilities. Starting next year, qualifying students could receive up to $9,000 annually on a debit card to pay for tuition, testing and other services. Cooper opposes what critics call “vouchers.”
And it also directs a sizable cut to the state Department of Justice, led by current Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat. Stein has fought legislative leaders recently in voter identification and redistricting litigation. Stein’s office said a $10 million reduction to legal services and administrative staff would require the department to eliminate as many as 123 positions, many of them attorneys, hurting public safety.