Pardon Our Dust
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The North Carolina General Assembly was in for a busy week this week ahead of a planned legislative Spring break next week. Representative Tricia Cotham (R-Mecklenburg) made headlines when she switched her party affiliation from Democrat to Republican, giving the Republicans a veto-proof supermajority in both chambers. And nearly a month ahead of schedule, the House passed a state budget bill proposing to spend $29.8 billion during the 2023-24 fiscal year, with education taking center stage.
Representative Tricia Cotham (R-Mecklenburg) gave House Republican’s a veto-proof supermajority this week when she switched her party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. In a press conference at the North Carolina Republican Party headquarters Wednesday morning, where legislative Republicans flanked Cotham on both sides, she said the “modern-day Democratic Party has become unrecognizable to me.” Rep. Cotham had already been a reliable vote for Republicans on matters dealing with education. Cotham, who formerly served in the House from 2007 to 2017 and served as the chair of the House Education Committee when Democrats controlled the chamber, returned to the chamber this year. Although Republicans now control the chamber, Cotham, as a Democrat, was selected as one of the chairs of the House Education Committee. In that role, Rep. Cotham has sided with Republicans on several bills dealing with education policy.
One of the catalysts leading to Rep. Cotham’s party switch stems from a veto override vote last week in which House lawmakers successfully overrode Democratic Governor Roy Cooper’s veto of SB 41: Guarantee 2nd Amendment Freedom and Protections. At the time Republicans were one seat shy of a supermajority, but due to Rep. Cotham, as well as two other Democratic members, missing the vote, the 71 Republican members present and voting were enough for a successful override. Rep. Cotham told reporters she was recovering from long-Covid and had made both caucuses aware she would be absent. However, according to Rep. Cotham during the press conference Wednesday morning, that did not stop “fellow Democrats from blasting me on Twitter…and coming after my family.”
The North Carolina Democratic Party responded by calling on Rep. Cotham to resign. State Party Chair Anderson Clayton held a press conference Wednesday afternoon surrounded by supporters holding signs reading “RESIGN.” Clayton said she expects the caucus to stick together, stating she wants other Democratic legislators who might leave the party to “out themselves now so we know what we’re going to be up against in 2024.” No other Democratic legislator has indicated they will switch their affiliation.
House Passes Budget
House lawmakers held a final vote on their state budget bill Thursday morning, officially sending the package over to the Senate for consideration. HB 259: 2023 Appropriations Act proposes to spend $29.8 billion during the 2023-24 fiscal year and $30.9 billion in the 2024-25 fiscal year. Republican lawmakers argue that their budget addresses inflation with state employee and teacher raises, childcare subsidies, and increases in the cost-of-living adjustments for state retirees, while also spending cautiously. The budget also has new funding for capital projects across the state, including historic funding levels for the popular sewer and wastewater infrastructure grant program for local governments. Additionally, while the House does not propose additional income or corporate income tax cuts, HB 259 would accelerate the income tax rate reduction to 4.5% that was included in the state budget last session. And, perhaps most consequential, the House budget proposal includes the funds necessary to implement Medicaid expansion in the state to provide roughly 600,000 North Carolinians with healthcare coverage.
Education funding is the state’s largest annual expenditure, from infrastructure spending to universities to teacher salaries, so it is no surprise that much of the House proposal addresses education funding and policy changes. Although Governor Cooper requested an 18% pay raise for teachers, the House proposal gives teachers a raise of 10% over the next two years. The budget also includes raises for school bus drivers to address bus driver shortages. Other state employees would see a 7.5% raise over the next two years, and retired state employees would see a permanent 2% increase in their pensions over the next two years.
Education policy provisions that emphasize school choice, which are viewed as controversial in the eyes of some Democrats, are also included in the bill. The budget expands the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which is a voucher program designed to allow children in low- and moderate-income families to attend private schools by allocating an additional $392 million to the program over a seven-year period. The budget would also remove requirements that Opportunity Scholarship recipients submit test data to the state government. The budget proposal would remove the State Board of Education’s oversight to authorize or deny charter school applications and shift that responsibility to the Charter Schools Advisory Board. Republicans have criticized the State Board of Education, which consists mostly of appointees by Democratic Governor Cooper, for denying charter schools and opposing school choice efforts.
House lawmakers passed the budget bill in a bipartisan vote of 78 to 38 with nine Democrats joining all Republicans in support of the bill. The budget now goes to the Senate, where they are expected to either draft their proposal or immediately go to a conference committee with the House to develop a compromise.