GOP seeks a plan

May 25, 2013 

This session of the Republican-led General Assembly has not lacked for theater.

There have been the Moral Monday mass arrests, a tug-of-war over Raleigh’s Dix park, a bushel of controversial social issue bills and infighting between Republicans that has spilled into the open.

Now the theater will start to give way to reality as the Republican leadership begins work toward an agreement on a state budget. That is where real dollars, or the loss of them, will meet real life. Gov. Pat McCrory has offered his plan. Last week, the Senate passed its plan. Now the House begins work on a budget that will either adopt or reject the central elements of the plans already on the table.

It’s curious to see the way these plans are being put forth. Republicans, for the first time in more than a century, have control of the House, Senate and governor’s office. Wouldn’t such a convergence also produce a consensus on budget plans? Couldn’t Republican leaders have presented a common front on spending and spending cuts?

Many notes sound

Instead the public is hearing a cacophony. The governor wants to hold the line on spending. The Senate proposes a 413-page budget larded with provisions that have nothing to do with the budget, but could make their way into law without specific hearings. The House leadership gives the Senate plan a tepid reception and indicates it will have a different approach.

Who’s in charge here? In most states it would be the governor. But in this one, the governor has chosen a passive role. He’s made his offer and now he waits for the Senate and House to tear into it. How the chambers will combine their plans is being complicated by the fact that House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger are both maneuvering for possible runs for their party’s U.S. Senate nomination.

Eventually, a budget will pass, but given the divergence of approaches it will be more of a patched together set of compromises, trade-offs and petty shots at agencies than the clear direction that was expected.

Another curiosity is the Republicans’ shyness about revealing their tax plans. Taxes, after all, are the party’s favorite subject.

McCrory’s budget was silent about the revenue side. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger outlined a tax plan in a news conference and a video, but no bill has been produced that sets out the details.

The House plans to draw up a budget and then do tax changes separately. Early drafts of House legislation indicate changes in the tax code much narrower than Berger’s proposals. McCrory appears to be in favor of more modest changes in taxes.

Confused? Indecisive?

Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, who was a budget chairman when Democrats controlled the chamber, said there was an unusual level of discord and dissonance between the various Republican plans. “We’ve got a big fight going ahead,” he said.

The only clear agreement is that the estate tax must be eliminated, costing the state more than $50 million. The death of the “death tax” will be good news for heirs, but those who are not coming into a fortune will have to wait until Republicans make up their many minds about what’s in store.

This seemed like it would be so simple when Republicans were the loyal opposition. They said they wanted to cut spending and cut taxes. Why are they having so much trouble agreeing on which spending and which taxes? Perhaps because they’re finding it was easier to say than to do.

Republicans are also having trouble balancing restraining their desire to settle scores with their responsibilities for leading the state. Some want to cut teachers’ aides, others want to eliminate prisoner legal services or shift the State Bureau of Investigation out from under the Democratic attorney general. Punishing is not governing.

On taxes, some would expand the sales tax to many services and sharply reduce income taxes. Others prefer a more moderate change.

Apparently, a century in the wilderness was still not enough time for the GOP to decide what it wants.

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