Senator Phil Berger and his staff are still busy scrambling to defend their partisan temper tantrum when Senate leaders recessed a late night session after Democrats offered some amendments that included a proposal to give teachers a bigger raise and make sure that state retirees received a cost of living increase.
When the Senate reconvened around 3:00 a.m., Republicans ran an amendment of their own, slashing funding for education programs from Democrats’ districts to increase funding to fight the opioid epidemic by $1.3 million.
Most Democrats didn’t realize what was happening at the time and neither did the reporters who were covering the absurdly late session. A few days later the News & Observer detailed the unprecedented and vindictive cuts to areas represented by Democrats that were so outrageous that the episode made national news.
Earlier this week Berger released a statement claiming that the Republican amendment that made the cuts to education in carefully selected districts was necessary to increase funding for the fight against the opioid epidemic without raising taxes.
The explanation is almost as absurd as the Republicans behavior that night. The amendment increased funding by just over a million dollars by cutting, among other things, a technology program for low-income high school students.
The choices were not to increase funding for the opioid epidemic or reduce the Senate tax cut for the wealthy and corporations, as unwise and unbalanced as that is.
The Senate budget puts $363 million in the state’s savings account. If Berger and his colleagues were convinced that adding another $1 million to the efforts to fight opioids was so important, they could have offered an amendment to put $362 million in savings instead of taking money from low-income schools.
Berger’s not fooling anybody. The 3:00 a.m. amendment was solely designed to punish Democratic Senators who had the gall to do their jobs and offer amendments to a budget that was created entirely in secret and unveiled only a few days before.
Thursday, Governor Cooper announced that North Carolina has received a $31 million federal grant to address the opioid crisis. That is 31 times larger than Berger’s urgent amendment.
Cooper also waded into the controversy about the heavy-handed tactics by Republicans at 3:00 a.m., saying that they had used the opioid crisis as a “political football” and pointing out that the Senate amendment to increase funding to help opioid victims was designated for only seven areas, all represented by Republicans.
That prompted a spokeswoman for Berger to issue another head scratching statement, saying that expanding funding for just Republican districts was not a big deal because some Democrats lived in those areas too.
Apparently Berger and his fellow Senate leaders were actually trying to help Democrats affected by the opioid crisis by giving more money to areas with a majority of Republicans. That makes a lot of sense.
And it must be just a coincidence that the funding was taken from schools and students in areas with Democratic majorities.
No partisanship at play here.
The widespread outrage over the indefensible education cuts in the 3:00 a.m. temper tantrum is not the only criticism of the Senate budget that is making the rounds in Raleigh.
Not only are the Senate’s priorities well out of whack, putting more tax cuts for the wealthy ahead of education and retirees, the budget is filled with dozens of controversial policy provisions that never passed a Senate committee. Many of them were never even considered.
One would end food benefits for 133,000 people in the state, including more than 50,000 children. And the eligibility adjustment wouldn’t save the state a dime. It is all federal funds.
Another provision would ban any more wind farms in the state. Another would create education savings accounts and another one would change the way hospitals and other health care facilities operate by phasing out the certificate of need process.
All of those are bad ideas but even folks who support them ought to agree that they should be debated in open committees not secretly stuffed into the budget document.
The Senate budget woefully underinvests in education, health care, environmental protections and other important areas. It gives more tax cuts to the folks who need it the least. It is chocked full of terrible policy ideas that the public and most Senators themselves never had the chance to weigh in on.
And it was passed in a ridiculous process that punished low income students in Democratic districts because their Senators exercised their rights as members of the General Assembly and tried to make the budget better.
Yup, Berger and his crowd really hit a home run with this one.