A North Carolina state government budget penned by House Republicans remained mostly intact Tuesday after the chamber's budget-writing committee recommended the plan after seven hours of debate and votes on more than 40 amendments.
The House Appropriations Committee recommended by a voice vote the two-year proposal that would spend $20.6 billion for the fiscal year starting July 1 - $12 million less than the Senate's budget approved three weeks ago.
The bill heads to another committee Wednesday morning before going to the full House later in the day for much more debate and two required votes Wednesday and Thursday.
The bill's passage in a chamber where Republicans outnumber Democrats 77-43 is all but assured, setting the stage soon for negotiations between House and Senate GOP leaders to work out dozens of differences in their competing plans. They want to get a final spending plan to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory's desk for his signature by the end of the month.
The budget committee debate Tuesday showed fractures exist within the majority party on some education issues. An amendment offered by Rep. Chris Whitmire, R-Transylvania, would have removed from the budget an initiative to provide publicly-funded grants of up to $4,200 annually to parents of low-income students to attend private and religious schools.
While the amendment ultimately failed by a vote of 38-48 following 45 minutes of debate, a handful of Republicans joined in support of the amendment. Whitmire, a former county school board chairman, said the "opportunity scholarships" would put many religious institutions in the uncomfortable position of taking public funds.
"What we have here is an absolute Trojan horse that brings government into a private setting and ultimately undermines and compromises what those school stand for in the first place," Whitmire said.
The scholarships, labeled "vouchers" by critics, also have the support of some Democrats who say children who live in poor areas and must attend poorly performing schools should deserve the chance to succeed.
The budget sets aside $50 million through mid-2015 for the program, which proponents estimate would be enough to serve 2,000 students in the first year and 9,000 students the next year. The program will save money for the public schools over time when comparing the cost of a student receiving a scholarship to funding the student's education in the public schools, a supporter said.
"If you don't vote against this amendment, you will have less money for your public schools," said Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg.
The committee narrowly defeated an amendment by Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, to repeal an oft-debated law that gives in-state tuition rates to certain out-of-state academic scholarship winners on University of North Carolina system campuses. A similar in-state rate to athletic scholarship recipients ended years ago.
Taxpayers should "not be subsidizing people from another state or another country," Cleveland said. "It's as simple as that."
The amendment failed by a 33-35 vote after several speakers said the lower rate lets private foundations pay for more scholarships overall and schools recruit students who may remain in North Carolina after graduation.
The committee soundly rejected an amendment by Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus, to eliminate $10 million in the budget to compensate living victims of North Carolina's sterilization program during the 20th century with payments of $50,000 each.
House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, has actively sought the compensation since last year. About 7,600 people received surgeries that left them unable to reproduce through North Carolina's eugenics laws from 1929 to the mid-1970s. Senate Republicans wouldn't go along with the idea in 2012 and didn't insert it in their budget plan this year.
Pittman said eugenics was a "horrible crime" but taxpayers shouldn't now be required to pay for what occurred decades earlier. "I don't believe that we can wipe away that injustice that was done by creating another injustice by making accountable (people) that had nothing to do with it," he said.
Lawmakers supporting the compensation said the state pays people for who have been wrongfully convicted of fired improperly.
"I can't believe that we can proceed on any course to do anything until we blot out this injustice," said Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan.