Rowan's legislators discuss their budget votes
By Steve Huffman
While the status of the state budget remains in limbo, one of Rowan County’s representatives said she remains convinced she made the correct vote on the matter last week.
State Rep. Lorene Coates, D-Rowan, voted in favor of an $18.6 billion state budget approved by the House on Saturday.
The Senate hasn’t followed suit, however, and negotiations over the budget are far from settled.
“If they send me home for doing what I think is the right thing, I’ll come home with my head held high,” Coates said, referring to what members of her electorate may think of her vote. “I did what I feel is best for the people of Rowan County and the people of North Carolina.”
The House vote, which passed by a 64-53 margin, went mostly along party lines, with Democrats largely in favor. The proposed budget calls for $784 million in tax increases.
The budget is supposed to be approved by midnight on June 30, though there is a contingency plan available should that not happen.
On Monday, the Senate unanimously rejected the House’s $18.6 billion spending plan. The latter vote was reportedly largely a formality and allows lawmakers to form a conference committee to work out differences between their competing plans.
Both House and Senate Democrats have suggested raising additional taxes that are needed to close a budget gap of more than $4 billion.
Coates said she wasn’t thrilled with the budget she voted to support but said she didn’t see any option. She referred to the teachers she’d spoken with, and individuals who’d begged her not to vote to do away with funding for home health care.
While the budget that Coates voted for calls for the elimination of salaries for 3,400 to 6,000 public school teachers, it’s not as extreme as some legislators had called for.
“To restore those cuts, we had to vote for taxes,” Coates said. “I felt it was the right thing to restore those cuts. It’s still not the best, but it restores a lot of them.”
She said that in these recessionary times, legislators had few options.
“Did I like it?” Coates asked. “You bet I didn’t. But I thought it was the responsible thing to do.”
Coates’ counterpart in the House, Rep. Fred Steen, R-Rowan, voted against the budget. He said he felt the $784 million in proposed tax increases would affect everyone and have a negative impact on economic recovery in North Carolina.
Steen said increases in the corporate tax rate and sales tax, an expansion of the franchise tax to include property owned by limited liability corporations and a new tax on Internet downloads are “too broad and too high.
“These taxes and fees will be nearly a billion dollars each over the next two years,” Steen said. “… I encourage each citizen to invest the time to study the tax and fee increases that were voted on.”
Besides the tax increases, the House version of the budget proposes $3 billion in cuts, with federal stimulus money off-setting $1.3 billion of that.
Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, said he voted against the proposed bill presented the Senate and said plenty more negotiations are needed before a compromise between the Senate and House is reached.
Toss in the $1.5 billion in new taxes that Gov. Beverly Perdue wants for education and other services, Brock said, and the situation becomes even more muddled.
“The budgets are so different,” he said.
Leaders of the House and Senate are working on budget compromises. Brock said he and the majority of other legislators will return to Raleigh on Monday where they’ll continue to work to hammer out a solution.
“Everyone agrees this is a bad budget,” he said. “Our job is to make it better.”
Brock said that should a budget not be approved by June 30, legislators have the option of passing a continuing resolution whereby state departments will continue to be funded on the same level as the previous year’s budget.