Promises Made, Promises Kept: NCGA Republicans Make Good on Portions of State Budget

In June, the Republican-dominated General Assembly passed a state budget that included pay increases for our public school teachers and for non-certified school personnel, pay increases for teachers in the state community college system, pay increases in general for state employees, pay increases for state highway patrol, ample funding for our transportation system and for disaster relief, and changes to our state tax laws. Republicans were proud of the promises made to the people of our state and proud that they were, for the most part, able to do the right thing without having to raise the budget to any significant degree or to increase state funding. Refer to sections (a) thru (f) below, noting the horrendous provision included to cater to Democrats in section (b).

Despite all the good in that budget, Governor Cooper went ahead and did the unthinkable – he vetoed it. His despicable act threatened the promises made in that state budget. Luckily in North Carolina, a provision was passed in 2016 to provide that if a budget is not approved, the previous budget remains in effect, keeping spending at current levels. Without the new budget, teachers would not see their new increase in pay, state highway patrol officers would not see their pay increase, state employees would not see their pay increase, etc.

And so, the question that remained this summer was whether Republicans would be able to find a way to override the Governor’s veto and to make good on those promises. Would they be able to wrangle enough votes from Democratic lawmakers to reach the magic number of 3/5 of a majority (even though it seemed they were far from realizing that option)? Would they be able to work with Democrats to come up with a compromise that Governor Cooper would approve of (including Medicaid expansion, of course). Even though Republicans promised they would never give in on such a fundamentally unconservative issue. Would a different opportunity present itself (such as a legislative session where limited numbers of Democrats fail to show up)?

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On June 27, the NC Senate passed House Bill 699 (HB-699), also referred to as the “2019 Appropriations Act” or more commonly, the “Budget Bill,” by a vote of 33-15. The bill then went to the state house where it passed by a vote of 64-49. The Budget Bill was, by almost all accounts, an excellent (but not perfect) budget proposal did not increase the state debt and which included pay increases and improved benefits to certain state workers.

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The 2019-2021 spending plan (HB-699) included the following:

(a) A slight increase from the previous state budget. The 2019-20 budget of $23.9 billion represents an increase of $689 million from the 2018-19 budget, and the 2020-21 budget of $24.9 billion represents a 4% increase from the FY 2018-19 budget.

(b) Instructed that $14 billion be used in the first year and $14.3 billion in the second year to fund education related programs throughout the state. Laid out in the education section of the budget, teachers, assistant principals, and school principals would see salary increases at an average rate of 4.6%, 6.3%, and 10% respectively. An additional $30 million in FY 2019-20 and $53.2 million the following year would be used to fund five School Safety Grants: one for school resource officers, services for students in crisis, school safety training, safety equipment in schools, and additional school mental health support personnel. The budget would eliminate the current classroom and teacher supply fund and replace it with a $15 million appropriation annually to establish the Teacher Directed Classroom Supplies Allotment that would allow teachers to use an app to purchase textbooks and other supplies specifically for their classrooms. Sadly and very disappointingly, a provision (a Democratic initiative) was included that would lower the grading scale to be used in the state’s public school system to measure school performance, changing the weighting of the school achievement component to 51% and the school growth component to 49%. It substitutes the 10-point grading scale (with a failing grade of 64) with a 15-point grading scale (with a failing grade of 49). Starting this school year, it will take very little effort for a student to meet the state’s new “competency” criteria.

(c) Includes pay increases for state highway patrol and for state employees.

(d) Medicaid Transformation projects will receive a nonrecurring appropriation of $232.9 million in FY 2019-20 and $198.4 million in 2020-21 in order to support the efforts of transitioning the state to a managed care system. Additionally, the Health and Human Services portion of the budget allocates $150.2 million and $11.4 million in respective years of the biennium to pay for the runout of claims for individuals transitioning to managed care.

(e) The Department of Transportation will receive $98 million in additional funds for the contact resurfacing of roads and other general maintenance projects. The budget also allocates approximately $58 million in funding for Rail Infrastructure efforts and includes provisions to remove restrictions specific to light rail projects. $15 million recurring dollars from the State Capital and Infrastructure Fund will be used for the GREAT grant program to help bring broadband providers to rural areas of the state.

(f) The budget contains several provisions to change North Carolina’s tax laws. Multistate corporations would be required to calculate their sales based on the percentage of their income that is due to products and services provided throughout the state. Tax and regulatory relief would also be granted to out-of-state businesses conducting disaster related work in North Carolina after a natural disaster, such as Hurricane Florence.

On June 28, Governor Roy Cooper vetoed the budget. He vetoed the budget for one reason and one reason only – to hold salary increases hostage in order to coerce the General Assembly into passing an acceptable Medicaid Expansion bill. He was intent on having Medicaid available for all those who needed it in North Carolina, including illegal aliens. It was a sickening exercise of political power, of partisan politics, of executive bullying, and of political extortion.

If the budget had passed, the members of the General Assembly would have had the opportunity to go home for the summer. Instead, they were forced, out of an obligation to their constituents and an obligation to their oath of office, to remain in Raleigh to figure out a way to make good on their promises. They knew, as it stood, they did not have the votes necessary to override the Governor’s veto. They would certainly need some Democrats to cross party lines to join them, and that would likely not happen (given the actions of the Democrats with the Born Alive Survivors of Abortion Protection Act). Many may recall how Republicans tried a piecemeal approach to the budget – passing individual conference reports and bills to meet the pay increases promised to individual state employees. In fact, they passed 3 conference reports, one to provide the proposed pay increase to our state highway patrol, another to provide the proposed pay increase to state employees, and the third to provide the proposed pay increases to state Bureau of Investigation and Alcohol Enforcement officers. An independent bill was passed to provide the proposed pay increases to public school non-certified employees and college professors and employees, and to provide bonuses for retirees.

No one can accuse a Republican lawmaker of not being tireless and dedicated to their position.

Note, though, that none of the piecemeal reports or bills provided for a pay increase for public school teachers. I believe this was intentional. Although Republicans (not Democrats) had already given teachers six consecutive salary increases, teachers (organized by their so-called “union”) have continued to protest at the General Assembly demanding higher and higher pay. They never thank Republicans (indeed, they don’t even know what Republicans have done on their behalf) yet when Democrats were in power and never ever increased their pay, the same teachers never made a stink. I believe the Republicans wanted teachers to know that it was Governor Cooper alone who prevented them from enjoying a pay increase and didn’t want to help him escape the consequences of his despicable veto. I believe they wanted Governor Cooper to feel the heat from teachers – hoping, of course, that teachers would finally travel to Raleigh to condemn a Democrat and to protest at the Governor’s mansion.

That didn’t happen… No surprise there.

On September 11. Republicans in the General Assembly finally were able to make good on the promises they made in the 2019-21 appropriations bill. They were able to seize on an opportunity in the state house to take a vote to override Cooper’s veto. And exactly what was that “opportunity”? As Republicans noticed when they walked into the house chamber that morning, there were hardly any Democrats present, even though they had an obligation to be present for a scheduled vote. In fact, there were only 15 Democrats present at the time the session commenced.

The override vote passed, along strict party lines by a vote of 55-15. The veto override vote now sits with the Senate.

Immediately after the override vote was taken, house Democrats began to cry FOUL Rep. Deb Butler, one of the 15 Democratic house members to show up for the vote, screamed: “Speaker Moore, I will not yield. I will not yield….. I will not yield.”

But was their any duplicity or scheming involved in the override vote?   Absolutely not.  In fact, Republicans refer to their decision to take the override vote as an “opportunity,” while Democrats refer to it as “villainous” and “unfair.”

Here is what happened:

On September 10, Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett county) was standing in for House Speaker Tim Moore, who was not in Raleigh. On the house floor that day, he read two bills into the record which would be considered by the body the following day – at 8:30 am. In other words, two bills were read into the calendar. Those bills were Senate Bill 118 (S.118), a prison safety bill, and Senate Bill 429 (S.429), a disaster recovery bill. At every legislative session, any bill that is remaining on the calendar (that is, still waiting for some action to be taken) can be taken up, depending on the discretion of the speaker or acting speaker. In fact, notice of the veto override was properly noticed and published on the House calendar, as it has been for nearly 2 months. Every legislator knew this. In fact, Speaker Moore had reminded members of the House repeatedly that whenever he saw that we had the votes to effect the override, he would call for the vote.

To emphasize, after Chairman Lewis announced his intention to take up the two bills, he announced a start time of 8:30 am for Wednesday for the house session. Lewis, House Speaker Tim Moore (who would be returning to the legislature the following day), present members of the House, and staff, were all planning to hold recorded votes on bills on the published calendar for Wednesday’s morning session.

The Minority Leader, Rep. Darren Jackson, asked if the vote on those two bills could be delayed until Wednesday afternoon to give Democrats a chance to consider them in caucus. (As you’ll note later, this was most likely a ruse to cover up what Democrats already had planned for the morning…..)   Acting Speaker Lewis agreed to allow the delay and said there would be no votes on those two bills until Wednesday afternoon.

This is a very important detail to grasp.

Rep. Lewis told Rep. Jackson he would delay the vote on S.118 and S.429 until the afternoon but he did NOT cancel the morning house session. He had made clear the day before that they would be voting on bills (and not just those two bills). Jackson apparently had mistaken what Lewis said to conclude that there would be no voting at all in the morning session. That begs the question then – Why even have the session? Why didn’t Speaker Lewis cancel it? If the session wasn’t cancelled, then there was clearly house business to address, including bills to be voted on and possibly, yes possibly, some calendar bills to re-visit.

Every night, the General Assembly (GA) publishes its calendar for consideration the following day. So, for those legislators who just happened to be absent and did not physically hear the bills to be addressed, they are able to receive proper notice by going to the GA calendar. And so, by the end of the day on September 10, the GA calendar listed the bills (S.118 and S.429) that it would take up the next day. Also on the calendar were those additional bills still waiting for action. Representatives who checked with the calendar would have also seen that a morning session was still scheduled, and it was to begin at 8:30 am.

As Republicans entered the house chamber on the morning of Wednesday the 11th, they noticed that there were barely any Democrats present. In fact, they noticed only 9 Democrats. At that point there were only 51 Republicans. This was a concern since legislators need a quorum to conduct business, and that quorum is 61 members. It was possible that the session would be cancelled. As both Representatives Keith Kidwell and Larry Pittman commented: “None of us, including the Speaker, had any idea when we came in for that 8:30 session on Wednesday morning, that the opportunity to override the budget veto would occur that morning.” They knew that only 51 of their members were present (out of a total of 65), and only a handful of Democrats were there, so there was no way they could have planned to vote on the override with less than 61 of House members present.

But then, as Kidwell recalls, the door opened and 4 more Republicans walked in and 6 more Democrats. That brought the total to 55 Republicans and 15 Democrats, which totaled 70 representatives and a quorum.

At this point, Republicans consulted House Speaker Moore about taking the override vote. The truth is that Republicans had always been looking for an opportunity to pass an override vote when Democrats let their guard down. That opportunity just happened to present itself on September 11th, while Democrats were off doing things they either weren’t permitted to do or otherwise shouldn’t have been doing.

Now, if Democrats were truly enraged and concerned about the override vote, there were two possible courses of action that could have been taken:

(1) The Democrats could have left the house floor, except for 1 member. This way, there would have only been 56 representatives and certainly not enough to conduct official business. The lone Democrat would be left to challenge any vote that the speaker attempted to take (“No Quorum !!”)

(2) Democrats could have coordinated their action and each rose to debate the bill (“I rise to debate the bill”), being allowed 5 minutes each. They could have continued with stalling tactics, all the while desperately attempting to wrangle more fellow Democrats to the house chambers. [As it turns out, as explained later, there were many Democrats in the building, in a session violating a court order, and they knew they could easily be reached and could easily be rounded up].

Instead, as Pittman explains, Rep. Deb Butler chose to begin a very disorderly temper tantrum at acting Speaker David Lewis, contrary to all rules of decency and decorum. Other Democrats went around the chamber, turning on microphone lights of numerous other members who were not there, videoing Rep. Butler, and even joining in with her childish display of yelling at Speaker Lewis so that we could not hear all that he was saying in the attempt to restore order. In the midst of her shouting, Rep. Butler revealed that many of the Democrats (those on the House Redistricting Committee, as it turned out) were together “downstairs right now trying to redraw partisan heavy maps.” So, in effect, Rep. Butler was trying to say that it was unfair of Republicans to take a perfectly legal vote, which was within the rules, while her Democrat colleagues were downstairs violating the court order about redistricting, which clearly prohibited anyone from drawing maps anywhere but on the committee floor, in public view, where that committee was dealing with that matter. In all the commotion, only nine of the Democrats voted, NO of course, and the other six were too busy throwing a hissy fit to vote. Those six were allowed to be recorded as voting “Nay” later on, during the afternoon session.

Rep. Pittman commented similarly on Rep. Butler’s behavior and accusations: “So I guess it was unfair for us to take a vote while they were breaking the law.”

Despite the video coverage of Rep. Butler screaming and admitting that Democrats, in fact, were in a meeting in direct violation of the court order, Democrats had the audacity to try backtracking and to try to cover up her admission. They began spreading the story that house Democrats had been at a 9/11 memorial service, and how dare the Speaker hold a vote when it should have been observing the date out of respect. As it was later revealed, only one Democrat member was actually at a memorial service at that time. To make matters worse for Democrats, House Minority Leader Jackson had confirmed in a press conference that in fact Democrats had been in a redistricting committee meeting planned that morning.

The failure of Democrats to show up at the 8:30 am session was likely the fault of House Minority Leader Darren Jackson. Misinterpreting what Speaker Lewis said the day before about delaying the votes of S.118 and S.429, Rep. Jackson told fellow Democrats that they didn’t need to be at the 8:30 am session. Rep. Jackson later admitted this to Rep. Larry Pittman. He said he felt the debacle was really his fault.

So, as Rep. Pittman explains it: “There you have it. The Democrats have no one to blame but themselves for losing a 55-15 vote to override the Governor’s veto of the budget. Furthermore, there were a number of them who wanted to vote with us who were not there.”

The truth is that there were likely several Democrats who would have voted with Republicans to override Governor Cooper’s veto. After all, pay increases are a great way to earn loyalty from their voters. But as we all know, Cooper has been playing hardball with his Democratic legislators, much the same way that President Obama did in DC with his Affordable Care Act. Cooper had been putting a lot of pressure on them to vote as he demanded. We saw that with the Born Alive Survivors of Abortion Protection Act, where he coerced Democrats to vote against the bill and to uphold his veto. To pressure Democrats into voting his way, Cooper would invite them to the Governor’s Mansion and introduce them to individuals who he said he would endorse and support as their primary opponents. It is not a far stretch to imagine that several Democrats are secretly happy that the over-ride vote went down as it did. They could claim that it was all a mistake (blaming Rep. Jackson), avoid making a very unpopular vote, and still take comfort in the fact that their districts will get the benefits coming to them in the budget.

In the end, Republicans stayed the course, kept their eye on the prize, remained committed to their promises, and were able to override the despicable veto of an outstanding state budget.

House Republicans, we thank you. You make us proud and remind us that we did the right thing by voting for you and sending you to Raleigh to represent us and our values.

 

References:

Dennis Van Berwyn – An Overview of the Override Vote

House Bill 966 (HB966), the “2019 Appropriations Act,” Lexology – https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=d10fff97-5727-492d-969c-5afe1ade9d87

House Bill 966 (HB966), the “2019 Appropriations Act,” ncleg.net – https://www.ncleg.gov/BillLookUp/2019/h966   and https://www.ncleg.gov/Sessions/2019/Bills/House/PDF/H966v7.pdf (bill text)

“Conflicts Between Gov. Roy Cooper and the General Assembly of North Carolina,” Ballotpedia – https://ballotpedia.org/Conflicts_between_Gov._Roy_Cooper_and_the_General_Assembly_of_North_Carolina

NC General Assembly website – www.ncleg.net

North Carolina State House, Ballotpedia – https://ballotpedia.org/North_Carolina_House_of_Representatives

North Carolina State Senate, Ballotpedia – https://ballotpedia.org/North_Carolina_State_Senate

 

APPENDIX I: (The NC General Assembly)

A.  Make-Up of the General Assembly

The North Carolina House of Representatives is comprised of 120 members. Currently, Republicans hold a majority, 65-55. They lost 10 seats in the 2018 election. In the 2017-2018 session, Republicans held a supermajority – 75-45. The House Speaker is Rep. Tim Moore.

The North Carolina Senate is comprised of 50 members, of which Republicans hold the majority – 29-21. They lost 6 seats in the 2018 election. The Senate Pro Tempore is Senator Phil Berger.

The Governor has the power to veto any bill that comes to his deck for a signature. If the legislature feels strongly about the bill and is strongly opposed to the reasons the Governor provided to support his veto, both chambers can vote to override the veto. A vote equivalent to 3/5 of those in attendance in the chamber at the time of the vote (provided a quorum is met) is required by each chamber to override the veto.

If the General Assembly does not pass a budget or if the budget bill is vetoed by the Governor (without an override), there is a provision in North Carolina law that allows the previous budget to remain on in place until a new budget is approved. In other words, this stop-gap measure allows the state to run with a budget at all times. This “autopilot” law was enacted in 2016, inspired by a lengthy 2015 standoff between legislative leaders and then-Gov. Pat McCrory. The law creates an automatic continuation budget (ie, the prior budget remains in effect) such that spending remains at current levels.

B,  Background

With the 2018 election, Republicans lost their supermajority in the chamber. Democrats gained 10 seats, reducing the Republican majority from 75-45 to 65-55. [A Republican supermajority simply means that as long as Republicans vote strictly along party lines, they are always able to automatically over-ride a Governor’s veto]. The requirement for over-riding a veto is that a 3/5 majority in each chamber is needed.

North Carolina has a divided government, meaning that government power is shared, by a separation of powers and a system of checks and balances, between the Governor and the executive Council of State (executive branch), the General Assembly (legislative branch), and the state court system (the judicial branch). Sometimes a political party is able to hold a state government “trifecta” which means that the party controls the Governor’s office and a majority of the Council of State positions, a majority in the state house, and a majority in the state senate. Currently, no political party holds a state government trifecta. (The Republican Party held such a trifecta with the 2016 election – Pat McCrory as a Republican Governor and Republican majorities in both chambers of the legislature). As of September 17, 2019, there are 22 Republican trifectas, 14 Democratic trifectas, and 14 divided governments where neither party holds trifecta control. In the 2018 election, Democrats had a net gain of six trifectas and Republicans had a net loss of four trifectas. Prior to that election, there were 26 Republican trifectas (of which North Carolina was one), eight Democratic trifectas, and 16 divided governments.

APPENDIX II: (Promises to NC Teachers)

(1) The pay increases included in the 2019-2021 state budget (HB966) represent the 8th and 9th consecutive pay increases to public school teachers by REPUBLICANS in the NC General Assembly.

(2) When Democrats held control of the NC General Assembly, teachers hardly ever received a pay increase. Even for five years prior to the historic political shake-up in the NC GA (when Republicans gained the majority), teachers never saw a pay increase; their pay remained stagnant.

(3) The average teacher pay in 2017-2018, thanks to the Republicans, was $53,975.00.

(4) Since Republicans have held the majority in the General Assembly, North Carolina has enjoyed the third fastest-rising teacher pay in the country.

(5) North Carolina boasts the second highest teacher pay in the southeast.

(6) The average teacher pay increase since 2013 has been $8,600. The average percentage increase of teacher pay since 2013 has been 19%.

(6) The percentage pay increase for teachers that Governor Cooper vetoed on June 28 (HB966) was 9.5%.

APPENDIX III: (NC Council of State)

There are 10 members of the NC Council of State, 6 of whom are Republican and 4 of whom are Democratic:

Governor – Roy Cooper (Dem)

Lieutenant Governor – Dan Forest (Rep)

Secretary of State – Elaine Marshall (Dem)

Auditor – Beth Wood (Dem)

Treasurer – Dale Folwell (Rep)

Superintendent of Public Instruction – Mark Johnson (Rep)

Attorney General – Josh Stein (Dem)

Commissioner of Agriculture – Steve Troxler (Rep)

Commissioner of Labor – Cherie Berry (Rep)

Commissioner of Insurance – Mike Causey (Rep)

North Carolina retains a unique system of divided executive power. The term “Council of State” harks back to a colonial era provincial council, which was essentially the upper house of the legislature, and then to a Council of State during the American Revolution, which was appointed by the legislature and curtailed the Governor’s power. The North Carolina Constitution of 1776 required “that the Senate and House of Commons, jointly, at their first meeting after each annual election, shall by ballot elect seven persons to be a Council of State for one year, who shall advise the Governor in the execution of his office.” When a new Constitution was adopted in 1868, the name and some of the powers or duties of the Council were retained, but instead of being appointed by the legislature, the members were now executive officers who were elected statewide, serving ex officio on the Council. At first, only the Secretary of State, State Auditor, State Treasurer, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Superintendent of Public Works (an office which only existed briefly and was abolished in 1873) were on the Council of State. The revised state Constitution of 1971, which is currently in effect, provides that the Council of State consists of all the officers established by Article III of the document.

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