RALEIGH — Robeson County’s two freshmen Republican members of the General Assembly are taking full credit for all that is good for the county in a state budget that is nearing approval.
“Let me be clear,” said Sen. Danny Britt Jr., who has been a member of the Senate for only six months. “Not one Democrat had anything to do with a single budget item we received in Robeson County.”
Local Democrats disagree.
The Senate gave its final approval of the two-year budget on Wednesday, 39 to 11, with all Republicans voting in favor as well as four Democrats. The House followed the next day with a 77 to 38 vote, with Robeson County’s other freshman Republican legislator, Brenden Jones, voting in favor. Local Democrats Garland Pierce and Charles Graham voted against and Ken Goodman, also a Democrat, had an excused absence.
The $23 billion plan is now awaiting Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature, although indications are he will veto it. If that happens, Republicans have enough votes to easily override it.
Some of the projects funded in the budget directly benefitting Robeson County include: $100,000 each for revitalization of downtown Lumberton and Pembroke; $150,000 for the River Walk in Lumberton; $10 million for the renovation of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s West Hall; $100,000 for the Lumbee Tribe’s Cultural Center; $75,000 for seating and a sound system at the Southeastern North Carolina Agricultural Events Center; $13,000 for the public library in St. Pauls for heating, air conditioning and to install handicap-accessible restrooms; and $100 million in hurricane relief money that will be distributed among all counties affected by Hurricane Matthew.
“I hope the governor will do the right thing and sign the budget into law,” said Jones, who like Britt has been a member of the General Assembly for only six months. “There is no reason for him to veto it unless it’s just politics.”
The budget, when it takes effect July 1, will spend about 3 percent more than the current year’s budget.
“This is an awesome budget. It’s a fantastic budget. It’s one of the most comprehensive budgets the state has ever had.” Jones said. “There’s more money coming into Robeson County than there has been in years.”
Jones and Britt both say that being in the majority party and working hard and long hours for their constituents is why they were successful in getting money for their districts.
“This is what can happen when you have guys sitting at the table working hard for their district,” Jones said.
Included in the budget compromise is a 3.3 percent raise for teachers this year and a 9.6 percent raise over two years; an increase in salaries for school principals; a $1,000 across-the-board raise for state employees; and a recurring 1 percent cost-of-living adjustment for state retirees. Also, the standard tax deduction will be increased from $17,500 to $20,000 in 2019; the personal income tax rate reduced to 5.25 percent that year, and the corporate tax rate reduced from 3 percent to 2.5 percent.
The final budget does not include a provision that was in the Senate version calling for stricter eligibility requirements to receive food stamps, a change that would have removed 2,144 Robeson County residents from the program, including 771 children under the age of 18.
“It is rewarding to know that some much needed improvements and projects can move forward due to these funds,” Britt said.
Graham said Friday that he objects to comments being made by the Republicans suggesting he did not play a significant role in getting funding for important programs impacting Robesonians into the budget.
He worked “very hard and diligently” to get items into the House budget that remained in the compromise budget, Graham said. Among these items are $120,000 for American Indian child welfare, $100,000 for the Southeastern Re-entry Council, $25,000 for a beehive grant program, and $2 million for improvements to “shovel-ready sites” in Tier I counties to assist industrial recruitment.
He is especially happy to see that the final budget included funding for re-entry councils that provide assistance to people exiting the prison system and trying to re-establish their lives, Graham said. He is disappointed, however, that the budget does not provide more money for broadband Internet expansion in rural counties and more funding for rural economic development.
Although he supported the House budget, he could not support the final compromise budget, Graham said. More money should have been allocated for teachers, state employees and state retirees. He said $530 million in tax cuts aimed at the state’s wealthiest residents and corporations are wrong, and that $300 million added to the state’s Reserve Fund, bringing the total to $1.8 billion, should have been allocated for immediate needs such as hurricane relief. Graham also objects to a $1.7 million cut to N.C. Legal Aid.
“I believe the compromise budget will be remembered as the missed opportunity to assist our rural counties with broadband access and economic development, as well as treating effectively the opioid epidemic in our state, not to mention a cut in the Attorney General’s Office, which is charged with protecting our citizens from crime and abuse … . I think the Republicans are out of touch with the needs of working families, education, retirees, state employees, teachers and children. I think this budget reflects that,” he said.
Pierce shrugged of the comments from Republicans that charged him with accomplishing nothing in Raleigh.
“It’s good that we have Republicans and Democrats both in our delegation,” Pierce said. “We have to all work together. If our delegation was all Democrats we wouldn’t be able to get anything done. We may have different opinions, but we are all working in the best interest of Robeson County.”
Pierce said that while the compromise budget has a lot of good things in it for Robeson County, he voted against it because he believes it could be “better” for his constituents and all North Carolinians.
“I chose to support the governor’s vision,” Pierce said. “The governor has shared his vision with me personally, and I received calls from constituents in my district asking me to support the governor.”
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.