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Patrick Gannon: Words vs. actions on state budget

RALEIGH – If I’ve heard it once from state legislators, I’ve heard it a thousand times: “The state budget is the most important thing we have to do every session.”

You certainly wouldn’t know it if they didn’t say it so often.

Here we are, more than a month and a half into the new fiscal year, which started July 1, and still no budget to direct how more than $21 billion worth of taxpayer dollars should be spent through next June. And top Senate and House members finally are starting to act – or at least talk – with a sense of urgency, saying last week that they were getting close to a compromise between the chambers on the amount of money that will be spent, but not necessarily how that money will be allocated.

“We’re not up here just sitting around doing whatever,” House Speaker Tim Moore said. “We really are working, and a lot of folks are having meetings, some meeting very early in the morning, some late at night trying to get this done.”

The words sound great, if you live in a vacuum. But they ring hollow, given the time of year – the legislative session began in January – and the fact that no budget is in place. They might really be working toward completing a budget now, but what about the weeklong summer vacation they took in early July and the out-of-state conferences many legislators have attended since then?

Had the “part-time” legislators done their “most important” job sooner, they could have had a really long summer break beginning around July 1 (until next year’s short session, which starts in May).

Moore’s words also offer little or no consolation to the teacher assistants, state employees and other workers whose jobs hang in the budget balance. Along with potentially 9,000 teacher assistants, workers in the state Department of Transportation and other state agencies also are targeted in either the House or Senate budgets or both.

State residents who work in certain industries affected by the budget also wait for the final outcome. Film industry workers, for example, want to know how much money the state will spend on film grants. That will determine how many productions get shot in North Carolina in the coming year, and, in turn, how much work will be available to them here.

Another quote from Moore last week also sounded good at first, but not so good if you really think about it.

“It’s better that we get a good product even if it takes a little longer, than to do a rush job on something that we can’t be proud of,” Moore said.

First, he no longer gets to use the phrases “a little longer” or “rush job” when talking about the state budget. Those luxuries – aka excuses – were forfeited some time ago, maybe around mid-July as legislators returned from their vacations. The budget, if and when passed, already will be the latest since 2002. And if the budget process stretches out to Aug. 31, the General Assembly will be entering rare territory in terms of budget lateness. There’s only been one time since 1961 that the legislature didn’t pass a two-year budget by Aug. 31, the deadline for the latest temporary budget, N.C. Policy Watch’s Chris Fitzsimon reported.

And finally, I’ll just point out that the House, Senate and governor’s mansion are all controlled – and dominated – by Republicans. And they have a $445 million surplus to work with this year.

Should it really be this difficult?

Gannon writes for Capitol Press Association.

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