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Five conservative Democrats stirred North Carolina's budget pot when they broke party ranks and joined House Republicans to support a spending plan that ends temporary sales and income tax increases but also threatens thousands of education and state jobs.
The defections raised the number of yes votes for the $19.3 billion proposal to 72 -- the magic number the House would need to reach to cancel any veto by Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue if she balks at a final plan.
At first glance, last week's switches seemed to weaken Perdue, who had won several partisan dust-ups earlier this session because House Democrats stayed united after her vetoes. It had Senate Republicans, who start in earnest this coming week writing their competing proposal and already have a veto-proof majority, considering whether to change strategy from a new position of GOP strength.
"We look at that as a very significant development," said Sen. Pete Brunstetter, R-Forsyth, one of the Senate's chief budget writers.
But the defections could be the best thing to happen to Perdue to engage a Republican Legislature.
Two of the five Democrats -- Reps. Jim Crawford of Oxford and Bill Owens of Elizabeth City -- are veterans of the budget battles when the Legislature was in Democratic hands and get along with Republicans. With their yes votes, they likely will be part of the final negotiations in the House and Senate and help fight for changes that Perdue could accept.
"We can be beneficial in helping negotiations take place and reach some middle ground," Owens said, a close ally of the governor and fundraiser for Perdue's re-election campaign. "We feel like we're playing a valuable service to help negotiate from the middle."
With one absent House Republican last week, four of the five defectors would have to remain in place to stay at 72 votes should Republicans decide to pass their own budget without Perdue's input and override her veto. That's a tall order for the GOP when there will be intense pressure by the five to back the governor.
It may explain why Perdue sounded confident last week the five Democrats would return to the fold.
"In no way does it affect my ability," Perdue said at a Raleigh high school. "I have no reason at all to believe when hard choices are made about the future of North Carolina -- about kids and teachers and community colleges and the future -- that they won't be with me if those choices have to be made. "
That's not to say Republicans got nothing from the defections, or the five Democrats voted with solely selfless intentions.
House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, got to brag about the bipartisan support for the bill that he said will encourage job creation through $1.6 billion in expiring taxes or new tax breaks. And by persuading some Democrats to vote with the Republicans, the GOP gained leverage over Perdue.
"It puts us in a better position," said Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-McDowell, co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
It also couldn't hurt for the five eastern North Carolina Democrats to get publicity back home that they had approved a budget that contained the tax breaks. Four of the five had close races in 2010, so the votes could help them gain support from Republican voters.
Rep. Dewey Hill, D-Columbus, one of the five, said in an interview he voted for the bill in part because it did some good things for agriculture. Others acknowledged amendments that addressed public school construction or specific concerns in their districts.
For Rep. Bill Brisson, D-Bladen, it was the removal of his local minimum security prison from a list of four set for closure. Rep. Tim Spear, D-Washington, got a pair of amendments passed to benefit Ocracoke Island. Owens said he was treated well in the budget subcommittee on which he served.
"I had as much voice in it as I felt the Republicans did," Owens said, but added the bill has shortcomings that would cause him to vote against a final plan unless they're corrected. "Do I think there's enough money in the budget for education? No."
Owens said he'd just prefer to let an extra penny on the sales tax remain in place rather than expire to fix education cuts Democrats argue would eliminate more than 18,000 public school positions. That's probably a nonstarter in negotiations because Republicans are resolute on eliminating the tax.
Gillespie said there's pots of money available in the House budget -- through emergency and government building repair reserves and the annual retirement contribution -- that could be used to resolve spending differences with the Senate -- and possibly in turn with Perdue -- on things like education and the Smart Start child education initiative.
With the Democrats, Gillespie said he anticipates the Democrats who voted yes on the House budget -- particularly Owens and Crawford -- will have a significant role to play in the final negotiations to determine whether Perdue will veto or accept the spending plan.
"I guarantee that they will be in the room," he said.