With amendments approved Saturday to fully fund a program that provides in-home and community-based care for the developmentally disabled, and to provide $2 million for a rapid state emergency response to the spread of the coronavirus, the Senate approved its version of a $4.571 billion 2020-21 state budget on a 28-1 vote (SB 150).
It’s another key step in the process to resolve differences in Senate and House versions of the budget bill and to adopt the state spending plan, perhaps as early as next Saturday.
However, Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, stressed the budget is very much a work in progress.
He noted Saturday several bills that have passed the Senate that would require new spending are either in “purgatory” in the House of Delegates with one week remaining in the 2020 regular session, or have been significantly changed.
That includes legislation to create a state intermediate appeals court, which was amended in House Judiciary Committee Friday to push the launch of the court back to January 2023.
If that provision remains in the final version of the bill, or if the House and Senate cannot resolve differences in the two versions of the bill by next Saturday, that would free up $7.7 million the Senate has budgeted for the court’s launch this July 1.
“Perhaps there’s a better use for those dollars right now,” Sen. William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, noted, asking if that funding could be redirected if funding for the court isn’t needed in the 2020-21 budget.
Blair said those funds could be redirected for other needs, such as the House’s proposal to provide an additional $16.8 million to increase reimbursements to foster care families, or could be left unencumbered to address future needs.
“There’s no problem with having some unencumbered monies in the budget we pass and send down to the governor,” he said.
The other bills that are in doubt, including a bill to give cities and counties financial incentives to consolidate (SB 138), have a total price-tag of about $12.4 million for the 2020-21 budget year — money that also could be freed up for House-Senate budget conferees to reappropriate.
With the amendments adopted Saturday, including increasing the Intellectual and Development Disabilities (IDD) waiver by $10 million to eliminate a 1,000 person waitlist, and setting aside $2 million for coronavirus response, the Senate’s 2020-21 general revenue budget grew to $4.571 billion, about $8 million less than the House’s budget, and $12 million below the governor’s budget proposal.
It is also about $122 million below the current 2019-20 budget, a budget enacted when the state was enjoying a temporary boom in natural gas pipeline construction and coal exports.
Other highlights of the Senate budget bill:
n The bill reduces the general revenue appropriation for the state Tourism Commission by $4 million, but Blair said Tourism is first in line for the first $4 million of any surplus funds left unspent from the 2019-20 budget year.
“I want Tourism to understand they’ve done a great job,” Blair said. “We have full intentions that Tourism is maintained at their current level of $14 million.”
n Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, questioned the wording of the coronavirus funding amendment, which directs $2 million to the governor’s civil contingency fund for, “accidental, unanticipated, emergency or unplanned events.”
“I have great concern because I don’t have confidence that the executive branch won’t take advantage of that wording,” Roberts said.
Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, lead sponsor of the amendment and a physician, said the wording had to be intentionally vague because the state constitution prohibits using the budget bill to legislate, and it is too late in the session to pass a companion bill to create a coronavirus emergency response fund.
“It is certainly the intent of the DHHR to only use this money for emergency public health response,” he said.
n Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, questioned the need for an amendment adopted Saturday to appropriate $375,000 to cover the first-year costs of moving Family Court judges from the Public Employees’ Retirement System to the much more lucrative Judicial Retirement System, when the JRS is currently more than fully funded.
Blair said the Supreme Court had requested the appropriation, adding that he would look into the matter, and that it could be resolved in conference committee.
n Senators approved an amendment doubling funding for state rape crisis centers from $125,000 to $250,000.
“It’s $125,000 that I think is going to have a huge impact,” Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, noted.