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NC Budget Fight Likely More About GOP Differences

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(Photo credit SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo credit SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The rivals in the 2011 fight over the North Carolina state budget were clearly defined as Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue in one corner and the Republicans in charge of the Legislature for the first time in 140 years in the other.

Republicans won — at least on Raleigh’s political scales — by overriding Perdue’s veto with the help of five House Democrats and implementing the GOP-penned plan.

On the surface, 2011 is repeating itself this year after those same five Democrats voted last week for Republican adjustments to the second year of the two-year budget that ignored many of Perdue’s suggestions.

“I think it was a good start,” one of the five Democrats, Rep. Bill Owens of Elizabeth City, said of the $20.3 billion spending plan.

But this year’s budget struggles may have less to do with the lame-duck Perdue and wayward Democrats and more with GOP leaders in the House and Senate fighting over competing priorities in public education.

The House’s budget for the coming year ignores a public schools overhaul like one being championed by Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, which includes merit pay for teachers and more reading help for children in early grades. The two chambers also differ on the length of the public school year, while the Senate is historically predisposed to give more to the University of North Carolina system than the House.

“I see major conflict coming between the House and Senate,” said Ran Coble, executive director of the nonpartisan North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research and a decades-long observer of the budget process.

It’s an intraparty scuffle that could end with Republicans failing to agree on scaling back cuts to the public schools. Republican lawmakers are anxious about criticism of their decision to reduce education spending last year as the fall campaign season arrives.

Or, as some Senate leaders have suggested, the Legislature simply may not approve broad adjustments to the second year of the budget if quick agreements can’t be made. The General Assembly has approved changes to the second year of the biennial state government spending plan in every even-numbered year since the mid-1970s, but it’s not required.

“That’s not out of the realm of possibilities,” said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, after the Senate Rules Committee he runs rolled out legislation signaling the chamber’s willingness to go home without a budget bill. “We do have a two-year budget already in place.”

House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said he didn’t believe differences with the Senate on education would be a big roadblock to a final budget bill.

“We’re going to work with the Senate like we did last year,” Tillis said.

But the process is already different from last year. In 2011, the Senate and House worked closely on a two-year budget so that no additional negotiations were needed after the Senate approved a plan.

This year, Senate Republicans will work separately from the House on its budget version, said Sen. Pete Brunstetter, R-Forsyth, one of the Senate’s chief budget-writers. It’s not because of a lack of unity, he said.

“Our members wanted to have their turn to deliberate on the budget,” Brunstetter said.

Still, some House members have suggested Berger’s overhaul, which will cost tens of millions of dollars next year, is too extensive to complete before adjourning in about a month. At the same time, the Senate is sure to question money set aside in the House budget for a yet-debated proposal that would give tax credits to companies that agree to fund outside scholarships for children to attend private schools.

While the House budget would reduce by two-thirds the $503 million school districts would be directed to return to the state next year, Brunstetter said the Senate is worried money won’t be available in 2013 to continue the reduction.

Once the Senate passes its own version of the budget, negotiators from both chambers are expected to work out a final agreement that will then go to Perdue’s desk.

While the governor still holds the veto stamp, Perdue’s influence has waned because she decided not to run for re-election. She’s also in a weaker position compared to the start of the two-year session in January 2011 because Republicans have already proven they can get enough Democrats to overturn her budget veto.

Perdue’s budget adjustment proposal has been largely ignored by the Legislature because Republicans oppose her idea to raise the sales tax by three-quarters of a cent to generate more than $800 million next year.

“We need more revenue to adequately fund our education system,” Perdue said in a news release after the House budget’s passage.

Brunstetter anticipates Perdue is heading again toward a veto given that she is resolute on raising more revenues.

“That’s the hill she decided to fight on, and so that leaves very little room to find the areas of common interest in the budget,” he said.

But all bets are off if Republicans fail to keep at least four House Democrats in their fold to complete a veto override. That means Democrats like Owens will still wield power in the budget negotiations.

“There’s still some minor issues that need to be worked on,” Owens said.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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