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The General Assembly is taking a highly unusual route toward accomplishing its even-year requirement, a budget adjustment bill.

It’s a little complicated and hard to understand. But the way that House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger are choosing do to things has already drawn strong condemnation from Democrats, who are calling it a “sham” process.

And while the state’s minority party is often hyperbolic and hypocritical in calling out political gamesmanship — this time, they might have a point.

It’s all about November.

Let’s get beyond the finger-pointing. Here is what’s actually happening.

In the N.C. legislative process, budgets generally run two years — matching the term length for members of the state House and Senate.

In the first year, there’s a long session to make the budget more or less from scratch. This year is what’s called the short session, which generally just includes adjustments to that budget.

There’s plenty of room for adjustments this year. North Carolina is in a good financial position and has a revenue surplus of about $350 million. All that money needs to go somewhere.

Typically, this budget adjustment process proceeds like any other bill. It’s filed in one chamber, goes through committee, and ends up on the floor. Members can propose amendments to be voted on.

Here’s what the short session budget bill looked like last time (2016). Here’s the link.

This year, though, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger are using an unusual vehicle to pass the budget: A conference report.

Well, conference reports themselves aren’t unusual, but the way this one is being used is.

A conference report typically gets made when a bill has been in both chambers and the House and Senate approve versions that are slightly different. A committee comes together with members from both chambers to hash out some differences.

There’s a key difference in how it’s treated, though. Members are not allowed to propose amendments to it on the chamber floor.

Here’s a sampling of the amendments proposed in 2016. That one that failed 38-78 was a proposal from Democrats to eliminate funding for virtual charter schools.

In this case, the General Assembly is using Senate Bill 99 as its vehicle. It’s a rather benign bill that has to do with reporting traffic convictions to the Department of Insurance. It passed by the state House and Senate last year, and a conference committee was appointed to hash out differences in the two versions.

They’ve now been replaced with a new group that includes all the heavy hitters on education policy, including Rep. Craig Horn, Rep. Nelson Dollar, Rep. Bill Brawley and Sen. Jeff Tarte.

Presumably, these are the folks who are writing the budget bill.

Is it really secret?

Yes and no.

Interestingly, Moore and Berger have been issuing rapid-fire press releases announcing different parts of the budget deal being worked out.

We already know what’s in store for state employees, economic development, broadband internet expansion to rural areas, and teachers.

It’s likely that when the conference report comes out, there won’t be too many surprises.

But we don’t know for sure. One of the beauties of a budget bill is that everybody can see the actual language of the legislation under consideration. Both Democrats and Republicans can fix problems, fill holes and have a substantive discussion of its merits1.

The N.C. legislative building. Photo by Gerry Dincher via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Why do it this way?

Let’s be honest: The budget is going to end up the same way it would have if the General Assembly had used the regular process. Republicans have a veto-proof majority, and the the rank and file have historically moved in lockstep with party leadership.

So why cause all the fuss2 and go the conference report route?

I see two reasons, and they’re both about the general election coming up in November. Remember, Democrats are still hoping for a “blue wave” and there are virtually no uncontested races.

The first is time. While this is the short session, it can still take a number of weeks to hammer things out the traditional way. The 2016 process took about two months from start to finish. Doing it this way will allow Republicans to push everything through in less than half that time. Then they can get back to their districts, fundraise, campaign and otherwise prepare for the general election.

Photo by Donald Lee Pardue via Flickr (Creative Commons).

But the bigger reason, I believe, is the Republican desire to avoid anything that could be used against them in the fall campaign.

The minority party often takes the opportunity during the floor debate to propose budget amendments that achieve their goals — especially the ones their opponents don’t like.

You could count on Democrats putting forward amendments that would delay further tax cuts, increase funding for pre-K education and increase teacher pay further.

[Read the Longleaf story on N.C. Democrats’ new party platform here.]

Now, proposals on both sides of those debates have merit. But the mandatory vote on such amendments could be weaponized as campaigns heat up.

Which do you think would resonate more on an election mailer? “My opponent’s party used a budget-writing process that didn’t give Democrats a say”? Or “My opponent voted against increasing teacher pay 8 percent”?

It’s obvious.

Democrats have tried for a half-decade now to sway moderate voters by arguing against the Republican redistricting plans. That utterly failed. It’s too complicated an issue.

This budget-writing switcheroo likely falls into the same category. People aren’t going to understand it, and therefore it’s much less damaging than allowing an open budget process.

Now, I’m not defending it. Going this route will likely result in worse public policy. Without time to digest what’s in the budget, there’s less time to fix problems with it before it goes into effect. You can tell that even a good number of Republicans are annoyed about it.

But such is the state of North Carolina’s broken politics.


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1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for the rational, and honest perspective on this flawed process. Yes, NC politics is broken. It cannot be repaired so long the Republican and Democratic control the system. Neither tribe wants, or respects, democracy (or even a republic). They want to rule. It’s time to change how our government works in North Carolina. Government should be about people, not politics. Vote Libertarian.

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