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Gannon: Let’s wait on the bipartisan backslapping in NC legislature

RALEIGH – I’ll admit I almost got goose bumps when applause broke out after the recent House budget vote.

The 103-12 tally on the House’s 2016-17 spending plan represented a strong, bipartisan showing for the budget crafted by the Republican majority. Thirty Democrats joined every House Republican voting for the $22.2 billion budget. A dozen Democrats voted against it.

This year’s House budget vote was the most lopsided since Republicans took control of both General Assembly chambers in 2011.

It was no surprise that House Speaker Tim Moore, a Kings Mountain Republican, played up the Democratic votes. In a news release, the speaker’s office touted “extraordinary bipartisan support” and a “landmark House budget vote.”

Awwwww. What a happy family we have in the House!

Not so fast. It’s not that simple.

The House budget has plenty to like for members of both sides of the aisle. It provides average 4.1 percent raises for teachers, 2 percent salary increases and $500 bonuses for rank-and-file state employees and 1.6 percent cost-of-living adjustments for government retirees.

It also has no new fee increases – plenty of those came last year. And it cuts taxes mainly for middle- and lower-income taxpayers in the form of higher standard deductions, phased in over four years.

But Democrats who argued against the budget said the tax cuts enacted by Republicans in recent years haven’t done enough to help lower-income residents and have left the state with fewer dollars that could be giving larger raises to state employees and teachers and funding important programs like drug treatment courts in a growing state.

By giving “excessive tax cuts” to millionaires and corporations, “we just eliminate a lot that we could be doing,” said Rep. Paul Luebke, a liberal Durham Democrat, during budget debate.

The true test of bipartisanship in the House this year will come after the House and Senate negotiate the final plan.

Rep. Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat, said he hoped House Republicans wouldn’t “go out in public and make a big deal about how bipartisan the vote is.” Jackson said he and other Democrats voted for budget to show strength in numbers to the Senate. They hope that House negotiators will “hold tough” for state employees and teachers when working on a compromise with senators.

“In my eight years here, I have never seen a budget leave here and get better in that chamber,” he said.

Rep. Larry Hall, a Durham Democrat and the House minority leader, said Democrats have tried various tactics – from support to dissent – when voting on House budgets the past few years.

Each time, he contended, Senate negotiators “rolled” House counterparts, getting more of what they wanted in the final spending plans.

Hall said he voted against this budget to challenge the House Republicans to “do better and to stand up to the Senate and ensure we have the proper investments in our future.”

The Senate is now drafting its own budget before negotiators from both chambers meet to iron out differences and come up with a compromise plan. If 30 House Democrats again vote for that plan, then Moore, the House speaker, truly will have something to boast about.

Patrick Gannon is editor of The Insider State Government News Service in Raleigh. Reach him at pgannon@ncinsider.com.

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