N.C. lawmakers say budget process is better, but still flawed
By Gary D. Robertson
RALEIGH ó Lawmakers debating North Carolina’s budget proposal have been trading shots about the process of forming the plan almost as much as the spending and taxing inside.
House Republicans complain Democrats exaggerated a record $4.6 billion budget gap to inflate proposed cuts and build support for higher taxes. Democrats disagree and contend the GOP shirked their duty to balance the budget.
“Our Republican counterparts stood on the sidelines and refused to cut spending or raise revenue,” House Speaker Joe Hackney, D-Orange, said as the House budget proposal was approved last weekend.
And while Democrats point out floor debate on the budget wasn’t cut off, Republicans gripe budget documents are incomplete and the real budget work occurs behind still-closed doors.
“To not allow every voice, every opinion, every question and every concern in this chamber to be heard throughout this process is simply irresponsible,” said first-term Rep. David Guice, R-Transylvania.
So is the Legislature fair or flawed in forming a budget plan?
The process of creating a budget and debating it is more open than it was two decades or even five years ago. But the numbers being debated are difficult for the public to follow and on its face don’t provide a complete picture of state spending.
Minority view missing
“There’s more transparency than there used to be,” said Ran Coble, executive director of the nonpartisan North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research, but adds the process still is dominated by one party. “The majority has missed an opportunity to get the ideas of the minority on what would solve this budget problem.”
The process to develop a budget every year has become more open and inclusive compared to the 1980s, during the days of what was called the “super-sub” or the “Gang of Eight.”
The eight-member committee held a firm grip on what would be included or left out of the two-year spending plans. Their final state budget often would be released in the morning and legislators would be asked to vote on it later that day with little knowledge of what was contained inside.
“Twenty years ago, you didn’t know anything that was in there,” said Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, senior co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who first joined the House in 1973.
The “Gang of Eight” faded after a 1989 political uprising and the budget process became more open. But most of the heavy lifting to create competing House and Senate spending proposals was done in shadows into this decade.
Following additional complaints that surfaced while then-Rep. Jim Black was House speaker, Hackney and Senate leader Marc Basnight have opened the process further.
Basnight said this year all of the Senate’s budget meetings would be open to the public. House budget committee meeting times and room numbers have been announced.
Republican lawmakers acknowledge there have been improvements, but they still say the Democratic leadership are rushing significant changes.
A plan to raise more than $900 million in additional taxes was released on a Tuesday morning in the Finance Committee and voted on that evening. Democrats also released portions of the spending plan and demanded up-or-down votes.
“There was no opportunity to discuss the items. There was no opportunity to offer amendments,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, a health budget subcommittee member.
Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, co-chairman of the House education subcommittee, said his panel held 23 meetings. All of them were open to the public. Republican members were able to ask questions, present their own ideas and amendments.
Under Black’s leadership, “we didn’t have access to information and I resented it very much back then,” Glazier added. “But this Democratic speaker has rectified that.”
Without a lot of extra work, the public and legislators remain hard-pressed to figure out how much would be spent or has been spent by state government.
For example, when $2 million in funding for 47 county court clerk positions is proposed for elimination in the House budget, there’s nothing mentioned in the so-called “money report” of how much is left over to pay the remaining clerks, like what a family budget may show.
“We simply don’t have the truth-in-budgeting and the openness to be able to understand exactly where we’re spending the money and we’re really making the cuts,” Dollar said.
It’s also been difficult to get apples-to-apples comparisons between budget proposals offered by Gov. Beverly Perdue, the Senate and the House this year because each plan accounted differently for more than $1 billion in federal stimulus funds used to close spending holes.
House Democrats helped approve a Republican budget amendment that would require the governor to study every program in state government once every six years and present information to lawmakers to justify its spending. Smaller efforts at “zero-based” budgeting have been tried with mixed success in recent years.
The legislation acknowledges that more changes may be afoot in the future.
“The traditional method of budgeting may no longer be sufficient to manage the competing demands of North Carolina’s complex budget,” the amendment read.