Christensen: A budget an accountant would love

rchristensen@newsobserver.comMarch 20, 2013 

Gov. Pat McCrory proposed a hold-the-line budget on Wednesday that offered key clues about his still-fledgling governorship.

It suggested that McCrory is a pragmatic, moderate conservative – not a tea party Republican. The budget colored him an incrementalist with a modest vision of what government can or should accomplish.

Budgets by and large are political documents, reflecting the goals and priorities of the governor.

A governor’s first budget is particularly important because the governor is at the height of his or her power to push an agenda through the legislature. McCrory will never has as much leverage as he has today. So what did he do with his leverage?

McCrory’s budget offered no sweeping vision of what he wants his governorship to be about. If anything it seems to be a green-eyeshades budget that puts an emphasis on fixing things or making things run more smoothly – it put more than $1 billion in funds designed to repair buildings or update computers and telecommunications equipment, or build up reserves for future emergencies.

This may be sound management, but it is not the stuff of which legacies are made.

Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, said the McCrory budget contrasts with the more ideological proposals coming out of the Republican legislature.

“We have the governor taking a more moderate, pragmatic approach, more interested in issues of management and administration,” Taylor said. “The legislature is taking the bolder, more pre-emptive and ideological position on issues.”

It appeared that McCrory tried to perform a political balancing act – something that he also tried to do during his 14 years as a Republican mayor of Democratic-leaning Charlotte.

He swung left when he proposed funding 5,000 more positions for pre-K programs, for fully funding Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor, and increased funding for digital learning in the schools. He swung right when he called for de-funding public financing of judicial elections and for state parties, cutting state agencies by an average of 2 percent to 3 percent and abolishing the estate tax for people with more than $5 million, and ending future Golden LEAF funding to create jobs in rural areas.

The reaction to the budget proposal was all over the map and seemed a bit confused. There was both praise and grumbling from both the left and the right.

McCrory might take comfort from President Ronald Reagan, who once quipped: “I couldn’t help thinking that, if the definition of a good budget proposal is to distribute dissatisfaction, ours is a real winner.”

There was no signature program in McCrory’s budget proposal – something that historians in future years would point to as a legacy item.

Consider the first budget proposals of North Carolina’s last two Republican governors.

Jim Holshouser in 1973 proposed the creation of a statewide kindergarten program, a 5 percent pay increase for teachers in the first year and a 10 percent increase in the second year in the biennium, an extension of the teacher work year to 200 days, and the endorsement of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Gov. Jim Martin proposed in his 1985 budget the phasing out of the inventory and intangibles tax and the states sales tax on food and nonprescription drugs. He also proposed a 5 percent pay increase for state employees and teachers.

Governors are creatures of their times. Holshouser – although his chief political consultant was Roger Ailes, who now heads the Fox News network – was elected governor during a more liberal era, and his program reflected the times. Martin was elected at the height of the Reagan era, and so tax-cutting was at the top of his agenda.

McCrory was elected governor as North Carolina is coming out of the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. While the state is no longer in a fiscal crisis, it is still weak with high unemployment.

The governor also must deal with political realities. When he was Charlotte mayor, he was dealing with a Democratic city council. As governor, he is dealing with an ardently conservative legislature.

McCrory said he and his staff conferred with lawmakers and made some changes in his proposals based on legislative input.

“This was not put together in a vacuum,” McCrory said.

McCrory will still have a chance to make his mark in the coming weeks, when aides say he will unveil his proposal for major tax cuts – likely reductions in the corporate and personal income taxes.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service