Christensen: Deadline looms on N.C. shutdown

Staff WriterMay 15, 2011 

Not to be a pessimist or an alarmist, but there are seven weeks before potentially the first shutdown of North Carolina state government.

That is what state government faces if the Republican legislature and Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue cannot agree on a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. In the past, if the legislature did not meet the July 1 budget deadline, it would pass a continuing resolution to temporarily fund the government until a permanent budget is passed.

This year, all bets are off.

Perdue and the Republican legislature are increasingly polarized, and there is a real prospect that they will not be able to reach an agreement. In what could be a sign of things to come, Perdue and the legislature already could not agree on one continuing resolution. Because an unrelated measure extending unemployment benefits was tied to the measure, 37,000 people have lost their benefits.

We could be about to enter uncharted territory.

If the legislature does not pass - and the governor does not sign - a budget by July 1, then money cannot be spent under both the state constitution and the State Budget Act.

"The constitution says no money can be drawn from the state treasury except by appropriations," said Lynn Muchmore, the interim director of the legislature's Fiscal Research staff and the chief architect of the State Budget Act.

There are criminal penalties in the budget act for spending money without a state appropriation, Muchmore said.

That means that as of July 1, there would be no one to operate the state prisons, or the state mental institutions, or state troopers to patrol the highways, or people to operate the state ferries and so forth.

"The only saving grace," said Muchmore, "is the good will of state employees who would come to work and do their job with nothing but the moral obligation to pay them later."

If the legislative and executive branches of government can't agree, there is always the possibility that the judicial branch could step in. After all, there have been suits brought against the state for failing to properly educate the children, or for not properly housing prison inmates. Why not for threatening public safety?

I posed that question to former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, who now heads a think tank, The N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law.

Orr said the state courts would be very reluctant to get involved where there is a clear separation of powers question, but he said it was at least possible that a suit could be filed in federal court.

"I would say court of public opinion would be more powerful than state or federal courts to get the legislature and the executive branch to figure something out," Orr said.

One would think that the political leaders would be fearful about the political fallout of a government shutdown.

But on the other hand, the two sides have been willing to see 37,000 unemployed North Carolinians lose their benefits as collateral damage in the budget wars. So who knows? or 919-829-4532

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