Colin Campbell: Unusual NC budget process shuts out taxpayers
Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 29, 2018
By Colin Campbell
RALEIGH — By the time you see how legislators want to spend your tax dollars, it will be too late to offer any feedback on the budget plan.
That’s because — for the first time in anyone’s memory — House and Senate leaders are using a procedural maneuver to skip multiple steps in the usual legislative process. I’ll spare you the details of how the unusual shortcut works, but here’s the bottom line: Legislators from both political parties aren’t allowed to propose amendments after the budget bill becomes public.
It’s an up-or-down, “take it or leave it” vote on a spending plan developed by a small group of Republican leaders who met privately for weeks. They argue that they’ve taken input from both parties during the process, and because it’s the second year of a two-year budget cycle, the bill is simply tweaking the plan approved last year.
But unless you’re psychic, it’s hard to weigh in on a budget proposal before it’s made public. And while it’s true that the biggest budget decisions were made last year, lawmakers shouldn’t downplay the importance of the budget under consideration now.
Thanks to higher-than-expected state revenues, budget writers have an extra $633 million to spend. Sure, that’s a fraction of the $23.9 billion the state will spend in the coming fiscal year, but it’s still a lot of money. To suggest otherwise is disrespectful to taxpayers. It’s also disrespectful to avoid holding public hearings before the spending plan is completed.
To be fair, though, the ban on budget amendments this year won’t have a big effect on the final product. Because Republicans have had a veto-proof majority in the House and Senate for years, leadership has always had the power to kill any amendments.
Democrats who tried to make major changes to the budget were tilting at windmills — making a political point to show voters what they’d do if they were in power. That’s what the GOP wants to skip this year.
I don’t think Republicans are doing this to damage the democratic process, although it does set a dangerous precedent for future legislative matters. They’re trying to rob the Democrats of attack-ad ammunition at the start of an election season where the balance of power could change.
Democrats likely wanted to force votes on amendments suggested in Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget proposal. He wants to cancel a corporate tax cut scheduled to take effect next year, which would add $110 million in revenue for education spending, teacher raises and other initiatives.
Legislative Democrats want the GOP to vote against that proposal so they can run ads that say, “Republicans backed tax breaks for big business instead of supporting our schools.” Republicans want to block this strategy, and they’ve said as much. “There’s clearly an effort to avoid contentious issues,” Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, told The News & Observer of Raleigh.
Instead, the GOP wants Democrats to have an uncomfortable vote during budget week. They’re packing the budget with provisions that Democrats might be hesitant to vote against.
There’s a jobs incentives package that appears aimed at luring Apple’s second headquarters. There’s a $35 million allocation to improve school security amid the threat of shootings. And most notably, there’s a provision to give all full-time state employees a “living wage” equal to $15 per hour — meaning the state’s lowest-paid workers would get a 28 percent raise. That wasn’t even part of Cooper’s budget.
Republicans are basically daring Cooper and legislative Democrats to oppose this budget. They’ve got attack ads ready to roll too.
Ultimately, this will be a budget with a lot for both parties to like. It’s just a shame that election-year jockeying has produced an undemocratic process, where even the illusion of public feedback has been shattered.
Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.