Rush hour

The last-minute push to pass a state budget usually results in some unwelcome surprises. Buyer beware.

August 5, 2009 

Budget in haste, repent at leisure. OK, maybe that originally was something about marrying in haste (by the 17th and 18th century playwright William Congreve, if you care) but it applies perfectly to the history of the budget-making process in the North Carolina General Assembly. The pattern is as predictable as the sunrise but not nearly as pretty.

Legislators meet and meet and meet and make all sorts of speeches about the budget, with Democrats wanting to protect established programs and Republicans getting exercised about waste and the governor urging caution with regard to harming education. The General Assembly lumbers along with the honorables collecting their per-diem allowances and doing the big-shot thing at parties and other gatherings, as if they had all the time in the world. Budget bills approved in the spring are just conversation-starters.

Are you with us so far?

And then suddenly, with the same speed with which they'd exit a ballpark when a thunderstorm rolls in, the leadership starts talking with great earnestness about the need to finish up business and go home, because, you know, the people really want us to get the job done. (The people actually wanted them to get the job done a few weeks ago, but OK ... )

What happens next is that key budget-writers get together, do what they want to the budget and roll it out, as they have this week, for a few quick votes and approval, with that sense of urgency, or even emergency.

That's the haste. Now comes the leisure, during which little things tucked deep into the budget will come to light, and they always include some money for special projects in this area or that, or for this institution or that -- spending that just happens to be important to the most well-connected lawmakers.

It's not that they don't deserve some credit for a tough budget balancing act, what with a multibillion-dollar shortfall and a horrible economy. It looks as if layoffs in state government have been kept to a minimum, and that's good. But all departments are slated for a hit, from the elimination of 100 vacant jobs in the Department of Correction to cuts in Medicaid money to cuts for public education, with legislators punting final decisions on where to make those cuts to local officials.

Still, in the coming days we'll find out about those little special items that have been preserved, perhaps due to lobbyists for certain businesses or institutions. They'll emerge as the final budget is combed by reporters and nonprofit watchdogs and the like. The public would be wise to pay attention, because millions of public dollars can be involved here.

Ah, well. The government sausage has been made, just in time to beat the expiration date. No wonder that it's not especially appetizing.

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