After a marathon session that ran well past midnight, the North Carolina Senate has approved the state's $21 billion budget. It was just one of a number of bills passed by the chamber. Another was a bill to cap county sales tax rates. WFAE's Tom Bullock joins Morning Edition host Marshall Terry to talk about those two bills.
Marshall Terry: Tom, let's start with the budget.
Tom Bullock: The Senate held two votes in this very long session on the bill. Both passed easily, the final tally was 33-10. But that doesn't mean there wasn't a lot of debate on the measure.
Republicans largely applauded the 260-page bill. Pointing out it gives an average 7 percent raise to teachers, keeps teaching assistant positions and does not reduce the number of people who qualify for Medicaid, a program that gives medical insurance for the poor and disabled.
Democrats, on the other hand, pointed out it cuts money from programs for at-risk kids, uses federal money to pay for programs the state used to pay for and that North Carolina will not put money into its rainy day fund, which is one of the ways the Republicans pay for teacher pay raises.
And in terms of that pay increase, Democrats again and again pointed out that while young teachers would be getting a large pay increase, more experienced teachers would not. This is because long-serving teachers currently get a check once a year that's called longevity pay.
MT: That sounds like a bonus check.
TB: It basically is. Under the budget that passed the Senate, these long-serving teachers will still get that money, but it is counted towards their raise. So while entry-level teachers may be getting something like a double-digit pay increase, experienced teachers are looking at raises roughly between 1 and 3 percent.
Republicans concede that's true but say a raise is still a raise.
MT: Now, at times, the debate over the budget seemed to be about settling political scores.
TB: Boy, did it. Let me give you two examples of that. First, Democratic Senator Jeff Jackson of Mecklenburg County brought up that no member of his party was able to see the 260-page budget until it was made public. And that senators didn't get hard copies of the bill until 8:00 yesterday morning, actually Wednesday morning. The first debate on the measure was at 4:00 p.m., just eight hours later
JJ: I don't see how anyone can vote for this in good conscience. You can't possibly know what's in here. You can't possibly know the intended affects of what's in here. Let alone the unintended affects.
Of course, budgets are written by the majority party. That's true whether the Democrats or Republicans are in charge. Here's Jackson again.
JJ: I know what you're going to say. I can see you reaching for the microphone. You're going to say Democrats did it worse. You're right. Everyone recognizes this isn't the way it should be done. But you're doing it any way so let's call it what it is. This is payback.
In response to this and other claims of partisanship, the Republicans basically said, yup. This is payback. Here's Republican Senator Thom Goolsby.
TG: So when I hear the drivel and the crying and the whining by Democrats about how bad this is, I don't know what planet you're on. Because I know how bad it was when you were in charge and what you left us.
MT: In the end the budget passed, so what happens now?
TB: Now it's the House's turn. They, too, are expected to hold marathon sessions to vote this through as quickly as possible. The first vote is expected today. The second either later today or tomorrow.
MT: Now let's talk about the county sales tax cap which passed the Senate. I thought that bill was likely dead.
TB: So did many others after it was shot down by the House finance committee. In the past it called for a cap of 2.5 percent for the sales taxes levied by counties. That's the rate Mecklenburg currently has.
The bill would have effectively killed a November referendum planned for Mecklenburg county where voters will decide whether or not to levy a quarter-cent more. The extra money generated would go to local teacher pay and to prop up struggling museums and other art and science institutions.
The version of the bill that passed last night had a surprise change. Mecklenburg and any other county that has such a referendum on the November ballot can keep it, and if it passes the county would be grandfathered in. So if this new version of the sales tax bill becomes law it would not scuttle Mecklenburg's plans.