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Budget negotiations next up at N.C. legislature

The Associated Press

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RALEIGH — House Republicans again gathered up several Democratic votes Friday in passing the chamber’s $21.1 billion North Carolina government budget for the coming year.

But support for key portions of the plan from fellow GOP senators, who approved a rival budget proposal, appear harder as negotiations begin next week to try to reach a compromise. Senators have panned the expanded use of lottery money and policy add-ons in the House plan.

“I think they made it much more difficult with the provisions they added,” said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, an expected key budget negotiator. “If we start that kind of gamesmanship, it may be difficult.”

Seven Democrats joined all but one Republican voting 77-35 for the House proposal in the second of two required votes following nearly two more hours of debate. A similar bipartisan outcome occurred Thursday night when the budget received its preliminary OK.

“The House created a responsible budget to reach a broad scope of North Carolinians and as a result has bipartisan support,” House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said in a release after Friday’s vote.

The measure attracted some Democratic support because it contained an average 5 percent salary increase for school teachers and didn’t cut significantly other public school personnel elsewhere to pay for it. The Senate budget approved two weeks ago cut nearly half the money for teaching assistants to fund even larger educator raises.

“This budget is certainly not perfect,” said Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg, a former school administrator who voted for the GOP budget largely due to the teacher pay raises. “I believe strongly that as elected officials, as leaders, we have to work together.”

A majority of Democrats still opposed the broader plan. Several speakers said the pay raises, which range mostly from 2 percent to 7 percent, didn’t go far enough to prevent the departure of veteran teachers and improve low morale. They also didn’t like the raises being predicated on the North Carolina Education Lottery generating $106 million more in profits by doubling the advertising budget.

“We’re not just gambling, but we’re gambling on gambling,” said Rep. Yvonne Holley, D-Wake. Republican lawmakers, who historically were opposed to the lottery before its creation, countered the state already allocates $220 million annually to teacher salaries.

No amendment was offered in two days of debate to eliminate the extra lottery funds. Republicans used a parliamentary maneuver to block a vote on a separate amendment by Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, to locate another $102 million to increase average teacher raises by 7.4 percent.

The measure now returns to the Senate, which is sure to formally reject the House version, setting up a conference committee. The two sides are aiming to get a final bill to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory by the end of the month. Since a two-year budget passed last summer continues through mid-2015, a budget adjustment law isn’t mandatory but usually occurs.

Apodaca said Friday the lottery provisions, which aren’t in the Senate’s version, are “hypocritical” and won’t generate enough money, especially since new advertising restrictions are coupled with the increase in ad spending. “They’re creating a massive hole,” Apodaca said.

In an interview Friday, Tillis suggested House Republicans may be willing to set funds aside should the lottery fall short of the $106 million extra. “If, for example, that was the only sticking point, that’s something we can solve fairly easily,” Tillis said.

It’s not the only difference initially between competing plans.

The House sides more with McCrory on the future of Medicaid than the Senate. The House bill also was saddled with a ban on children under 18 using tanning beds, extending tax credits on renovating historic buildings and creating a new grant program for film incentives. None were in the Senate budget bill.

The House also directed regulations be created for large commercial dog breeders. McCrory and his wife, Ann, have lobbied for such rules, but Apodaca has said a similar idea is dead for this year’s session.