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Why North Carolina's Governor Vetoed the State Budget -- and Why It Probably Doesn't Matter

Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday he has vetoed the state budget proposal passed by the legislature.

By Will Doran

Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday he has vetoed the state budget proposal passed by the legislature.

As long as Republicans stick together, their budget will survive the Democratic governor's veto. The GOP holds such large majorities in both the North Carolina Senate and House of Representatives that they can override vetoes. That's what happened last year after Cooper vetoed lawmakers' two-year budget plan.

Cooper made his announcement flanked by teachers and said that the level of education spending in the budget was a major reason for his veto. He said he wanted to send a message.

"When you are continuing to drop in per-pupil expenditures, when you're still 37th in the country in teacher pay, that's unacceptable," Cooper said.

Republican leaders, however, don't appear worried about their ability to overturn Cooper's veto. Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore defended the budget and criticized Cooper just minutes after the veto announcement.

"Gov. Cooper has once again shown that he is more concerned about scoring political points than helping North Carolinians," Moore and Berger said in a press release. "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."

Cooper had proposed spending several hundred million dollars more than legislative leaders ultimately agreed to. The main difference, which Moore alluded to, was that Cooper wanted to stop the implementation of another corporate income tax cut next year and freeze planned tax cuts on income that people earn above $200,000, using the extra revenue to give teachers a larger raise and also spend money on other projects.

Despite Cooper's requests, the legislature kept its new tax cuts on track to go into effect next year and spent less on numerous state departments than the governor had wanted. But the budget Cooper vetoed isn't entirely more austere than his own plan.

For state employees, the legislature goes further than what Cooper had proposed in some cases, including raising the minimum wage for most state workers to $15 an hour. The legislature also gave bigger raises to prison correctional officers and state troopers than Cooper had proposed.

Cooper said that while he believes nearly three-quarters of state employees would have received larger raises under his plan, he's glad that the legislature did set aside millions of dollars for state employees. He said he thinks that only happened because his budget announcement put pressure on Republican leaders to do more.

"This budget would've been a lot worse, but for the budget we put forth," he said.

Cooper defended his budget from suggestions from the legislature's nonpartisan fiscal researchers that if the state had adopted his proposal, the state government would soon face a deficit. Cooper said that not only does his plan not lead to deficit spending, but that he thinks the Republicans will eventually put the state into a deficit.

"Unfortunately you're going to have to have cuts down the road if you continue these tax breaks," he said.

The conservative Civitas Institute said Cooper has the wrong priorities.

"What would he prefer? Cooper's budget proposal would have spent half a billion more taxpayer dollars than the one he rejected, and raised taxes on working North Carolinians by more than $100 million," Civitas executive vice president Brian Balfour said in a written statement. "Indeed, Cooper's proposal would have increased spending by 6.6 percent over the current year, which would have been the largest year-over-year increase in ten years."

Cooper also has reason to dislike the budget's environmental funding, which is millions of dollars lower than what he had asked for.

The League of Conservation Voters praised him for vetoing the budget, saying that lawmakers used the budget bill to help out the company behind GenX pollution and should've allowed changes to the budget after it was unveiled to the public.

"If legislators override the governor's veto, voters will hold them accountable this fall," the environmental group said in a press release. "Clean air and water are fundamental rights which are our government's responsibility to protect."

On the education front, the budget makes some changes to aid in the expansion of public charter schools as well as taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools, which Cooper has been opposed to in the past.

"North Carolinians deserve new representatives who will prioritize higher teacher pay raises, safer schools, and clean water before corporate donors," the N.C. Democratic Party said in a press release. "Come November, they'll have them."

This year was the first time in modern North Carolina history that legislative leaders refused to allow budget amendments. That meant that after the budget bill was done being written in secret and unveiled to the public, no changes were allowed.

Democrats and even some Republicans criticized the GOP leadership for that heavy-handed tactic, which may have also caused some mistakes. Legislators didn't fund the state's suicide hotline, a problem they now say they plan to fix soon.

(c)2018 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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