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Panel OKs NC Senate budget bill; Dems pan policy provisions

By Gary D. Robertson
Associated Press

RALEIGH — Senate Republicans pushed their North Carolina government budget proposal through the chamber’s largest committee Tuesday, rejecting Democratic critiques that the measure spends too little now and serves as a vehicle to sting the GOP’s political rivals.

The measure, which also allocates $5.2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief aid for business grants, state employee bonuses, broadband expansion, and water and sewer projects, cleared the appropriations panel after less than three hours of debate and a few amendments. The plan remains on track for passing the full Senate by Friday — another step toward enacting a two-year budget.

GOP leaders also highlighted plans within the measure to cut income taxes more deeply and fund more future capital projects than originally envisioned — the result of an unexpected surge in current and projected tax collections through mid-2023.

“It provides a tremendous amount of infrastructure for the state,” Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican and chief budget-writer, said after the vote. “The tax package is going to help every taxpaying citizen in this state.”

But Democrats and their allies call the GOP budget a wasted opportunity to spend more on immediate education and health care needs — especially teacher pay — as many in the state are still struggling to rebound from COVID-19 restrictions.

“This pandemic has highlighted existing inequities, and now we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to repair these faults while investing in the future of our state,” Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue of Wake County said in a prepared release.

The 400-plus-page bill also contains several policy changes that critics argue have nothing to do with spending and should be left out. Many of these “special provisions” would weaken or roll back powers of two Democrats — Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein — and the State Board of Elections, which is controlled by Democrats.

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri of Wake County, the chamber’s Democratic whip, said in committee that these and other provisions made the spending plan appear “less of a budget document and more of a power grab” against Cooper, Stein and the board.

Jackson said he saw nothing new about adding policy prescriptions to the budget: “About anything is relevant when it’s put into the budget.”

The measure incorporates a separate Senate bill approved in April that would require governors to obtain approval of the Council of State and ultimately the legislature to extend executive orders declaring a state of emergency — like one Cooper still has in place for the pandemic. Republicans have said Cooper holds too much unilateral power.

Another item would require Stein to get Council of State approval before formally getting involved in litigation within out-of-state or federal courts in which the state isn’t already specific named. Some Republicans have said Stein spends too much time and state money on multistate litigation initiated with other Democratic attorneys general.

“I don’t think it’s the attorney general’s job to litigate something that’s a political issue,” said Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican, adding that it’s “not a good use of state resources.”

Spokesperson Nazneen Ahmed said Stein’s office was still reviewing the budget proposal but the provision appears to violate the state constitution. The attorney general is a constitutionally named officer elected statewide, bringing with it wide latitude.

Another special provision in the budget measure — also already approved separately by the Senate — would require legal settlements involving constitutional challenges of state law to be backed by the Senate leader and House speaker before they can be entered.

Stein and the state elections board entered a legal settlement last fall with a labor-affiliated group that increased the number of days mailed absentee ballots could be received after Election Day and still count. Angry Republican legislators, left out of those negotiations, argued the settlement overturned state law, which allows a three-day grace period.

A new item within the budget would direct the elections board division charged with investigating elections and campaign finance to be transferred to the State Bureau of Investigation. Britt said it’s better for “a completely neutral party” like the SBI performing investigations rather than investigators that can be subject to influence by the officially partisan board.

The division investigators aren’t political appointees and are specifically trained on elections matters, while the SBI has other competing priorities, the board wrote in a document addressing the provision.

Chaudhuri questioned whether the provisions, if left intact by the House, threaten the ability of legislative Democrats and Cooper to support a final budget this year. Two years ago, a budget impasse between Cooper and Republicans after the governor’s veto was never fully resolved.

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