The last time North Carolina’s Republican-majority legislature tried to pass a budget, Sen. Don Davis, a Greenville Democrat, had to choose between standing with his party and fulfilling a campaign promise.
The GOP’s budget that year would have funded renovations of East Carolina University’s medical school, a priority for both Davis and many of his constituents. Instead of backing the final proposal, Davis opted to stand with his fellow Democrats, killing Republicans’ agenda that year along with the money for ECU.
In June, Davis was faced with nearly the same choice. He was one of four Democrats who broke with the party and sided with Senate Republicans in a vote for the first draft of a budget proposal advancing conservative priorities. With more than $75 million on the table for ECU’s Brody School of Medicine this time, Davis chose to back Republicans. Davis didn’t respond to numerous requests for comment.
In breaking with their party, Davis and three other Democrats — Sen. Paul Lowe, from Winston-Salem, Sen. Kirk deViere, from Fayetteville, and Sen. Ben Clark, from Raeford — delivered Republicans an early victory in the budget process. Rather than hold the line with fellow Democrats who adamantly oppose the budget, the four chose to work with Republicans in hopes that they’ll have a seat at the negotiating table moving forward so that their districts get the funding they need.
“Having dialogue across the aisle is important,’‘ said deViere, who voted for the budget but acknowledged it’s not perfect and has a long way to go. “It’s how good government should happen.”
Republicans, who only need two Senate Democrats to vote with them to override a gubernatorial veto, allocated some $41.5 million in funding for deViere’s district in the first draft of the budget, according to an analysis by the NC Insider.
Whatever the consequences of his vote in favor of the budget, deViere said, “I’m willing to work through them or deal with them and focus on the opportunity we have with the funding that’s in front of us.”
A similar but reverse situation is unfolding in Washington, where Democrats have the upper hand. Some Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, have opted to work with Democrats to shape President Joe Biden’s $579 billion infrastructure plan, rather than block it.
Most U.S. Senate Republicans, though, are not on board with that plan. Likewise, a majority of North Carolina Democrats are pushing back against legislative Republicans’ spending plan, namely because it includes large tax cuts for corporations and individuals instead of heftier state employee pay raises, funding for health care reform and more generous allocations for education.
“The current budget proposal falls incredibly short of what North Carolina needs at this critical moment,” Democratic Rep. Robert Reives, the House minority leader, said in a press release after the budget was introduced.
State legislative Democrats’ differing philosophies on how to deal with the Republicans could serve as a test of who will appeal most to voters in the 2022 election: hardliners or compromisers.
The first proposed budget draft is often described as the first move in a game of chess, or a move from home to first base in a baseball game. With weeks, or even months, left in the budget negotiation process, the budget is expected to look much different by the time it arrives on the governor’s desk, meaning a compromise among all parties is still within reach.
“At the end of the day, you got to get to home plate in order to score,” said Senate minority leader Dan Blue, a Democrat representing Wake County.
Though Blue doesn’t know what that final budget will include, he maintains that Senate Democrats will all band together in the end. And he believes that, with billions in surplus this year, the budget will include many Democratic priorities.
“What I’m banking on is, at the end of the day, these other issues that are important to the caucus will end up transcending a good number of the individual desires,” Blue said. “That’s not to say their individual desires might not be in any final budget.”
Ghost of budget cycles past
A contentious 2019 budget stalemate still looms large over this year’s negotiations, and some lawmakers say it’s a driving force in the effort to come to a compromise this time. That year, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the Republican-majority legislature’s proposed budget.
Using a controversial maneuver, the House then voted to override that veto, and the Senate needed just one Democrat’s vote for the budget to become law.
Davis, who had voted to override the governor’s veto of an abortion restriction bill earlier that year, was thought to be a Democrat who might side with Republicans. Though Davis voted for an earlier version of the 2019 spending plan, his support for the budget wavered when he faced pressure to stand with fellow Democrats. Without Davis’ backing, the Senate didn’t have the votes to override Cooper’s veto.
Because the governor and the legislature were unable to come to an agreement in 2019, North Carolina has been without a formal spending plan for more than two years now, putting additional pressure on both the governor and the legislature to work together to pass one this year.
Democrats hoped to avoid a budget standoff altogether last year with a plan to flip the state legislature in the 2020 elections. Despite their efforts, they didn’t strip Republicans of control. Instead, Democrats lost some seats in the state House.
A 2020 win could have also given Democrats control over redistricting in the next legislative election cycle, which comes every two years. But with Republicans in control, it’s possible that their party could win enough seats to override future gubernatorial vetoes. That possibility, some Republicans say, means it could be Cooper’s last chance to work with Republicans and pass a budget. With three and a half years left in the governor’s second and final term, Republicans could pass a budget without Cooper’s buy-in if they gain just a handful of legislative seats in 2022.
Democrats who vote with Republicans also face the possible consequence of an uphill battle in the next primary election, giving voters the choice between a candidate who prioritizes compromise and specific constituent desires and one who stays loyal to the party.
Lowe, the Democratic senator from Winston-Salem, seems to be banking on voters casting ballots for a candidate who has a track record of compromising.
In an interview with The News & Observer, Lowe said he made a “small push” for an estimated $131 million allocated for eight projects in his district or that overlap with neighboring Republican Sen. Joyce Krawiec’s district.
“These are things that are needed in my district, and the people in my district want,” Lowe said. “I’ve got to listen to them.”
For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Under the Dome politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it at link.chtbl.com/underthedomenc or wherever you get your podcasts.