Lawmakers plan to override Cooper’s budget veto on Thursday

Opposing the process by which the budget was passed and calling for more spending, Cooper vetoed the budget on Wednesday.

Madeline Gray—North State Journal
An American flag and the North Carolina state flag wave in the breeze outside of the General Assembly building on Friday

Raleigh, N.C.  – Lawmakers say they will override Governor Roy Cooper’s veto of the Republican-led state legislature’s budget adjustment, which provided raises to teachers, state troopers and other state employees. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) and Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) called the $23.9 billion budget “responsible,” investing in key priorities including employee raises, infrastructure and schools.

“Gov. Cooper has once again shown that he is more concerned about scoring political points than helping North Carolinians,” said Moore and Berger in a joint statement. “Let’s be clear about what the governor has done. He has opposed a 6.5 percent teacher pay raise, he has opposed an 8 percent state trooper raise, he has opposed a new living wage of $31,200 for state employees, and he has opposed tax cuts that would result in 99 percent of families and small businesses having reduced or no state income tax. The people of North Carolina deserve better and they will get it when we override his veto.”

The short session adjustments to the 2017-18 biennial budget, passed by both chambers of the N.C. legislature last week, included at least a 2 percent boost in salary with many others given much more. The State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC), worked with lawmakers on the budget and celebrated its passage.  Troopers from the North Carolina State Highway Patrol have often complained they were not getting the same kind of attention from budget writers as teachers, who have received 19 percent average raises over the last five years. This year, if the legislature overrides Cooper’s veto, state troopers would receive larger raises, at about 8 percent on average, than teachers do at 6.5 percent. In addition, the entry-level base pay for state troopers will rise from $39,000 per year to $44,000.

The most dramatic raises in the General Assembly’s budget were directed toward state employees making the lowest salaries. The current floor, or minimum salary given to state workers, is $24,332. This floor is being raised to $31,200, an almost 30 percent increase. The SEANC, a state chapter of SEIU, praised the increase. A nationwide priority of SEIU has been the “Fight for 15” campaign that asks for a “living wage” of $15 per hour for every worker — which equals $31,200 for a $15-an-hour, 40-hour work week over the course of 52 weeks.

In an unusual move for a group generally associated with the Democratic Party, SEANC had their director, Rob Broome, join GOP leaders as they announced these raises.

“What I’m just tremendously excited about is the fact that we were able to sit down with the House and Senate leadership and come up with a plan that will make North Carolina a leader in terms of living wages for public employees,” Broome said at the press conference. “For that, SEANC applauds the House and Senate leadership and look forward to working together for a long time to come.”

The SEANC ran a series of video comments on social media from state employees expressing their thanks to the Republican-led General Assembly for the raises.

“Thank you to SEANC and the legislature, the pay raises are really going to help me a lot, pay of car loans and move forward in life,” said Joshua, an employee of the UNC system.

“The raise means a lot. I’ve worked for university (UNC) for 20 years and I make like $28,000,” said Myra in the video. “Thank you guys for trying to speak up for us.”

Reaction from the left was not uniformly positive however, as Cooper and budget opponents focused on process; General Assembly leadership moved the budget through the legislative process as a committee substitute, disallowing amendments and debating the budget in committee, rather than on the floor of the chambers.  The three committee meetings took questions and comments from members and had a live audio streamed for the public.

Rob Schofield, director of the state’s leading progressive think tank, N.C. Policy Watch, parted ways with SEANC on the budget. Schofield decried both the process and lack of funding to what he believed were key areas of governance.

After laying out why he believed the budget fell short in a number of areas, Schofield concluded, “The budget and the tactics accompanying it are, in other words, cut from the same political cloth one would expect to see on display from (President Donald) Trump’s patron in the Kremlin rather than the kind associated with a functioning Western democracy.”

Cooper has focused him public comments on his objection to the legislature keeping scheduled tax cuts in place. State taxes are scheduled to go down again for the fifth straight year. The $1.5 billion tax cut is tied to the state’s continued positive economic performance, according to a tax cut bill the Republicans passed after taking control of the General Assembly in 2011.  Republicans have pointed to the cuts as the catalyst for N.C.’s dramatic economic turnaround over the past several years. Democrats, including Cooper, have objected to the tax cuts and called for them to be pulled back in favor of more state spending.

“We can do so much more to raise teacher pay, improve school safety and protect drinking water but legislative Republicans thought it was more important to protect their tax breaks for corporations and people making over $200,000 a year,” Cooper’s office said. “Gov. Cooper’s budget proposed tax fairness for teacher pay along with forward-thinking investments while saving responsibly.”

Becki Gray, senior vice president at the conservative think tank the John Locke Foundation, disagrees. In a press release, Gray lauded the budget and the GOP’s ability to lower taxes, fund essential elements of governance (including employee wages) and still have the flexibility to leave much of the state’s revenue unspent.

“By guaranteeing that every full-time state worker will earn at least $31,200 a year, the budget addresses one of state employees’ major concerns,” said Gray. “Once again, this change is made possible by fiscal prudence state lawmakers have exercised in the past.

“The General Assembly diverges from the governor in not trying to spend almost every available dollar for an ongoing government expense,” Gray continued. “This budget plan leaves about $560 million unspent this year, while putting aside another $220 million for the rainy-day reserve fund, $135 million in reserves for Medicaid changes, and $220 million for capital projects and repairs.”

The General Assembly leadership, expecting a gubernatorial veto on the budget, built into its schedule plans to override the maneuver, and expects to do so on Thursday.