McCrory-Berger clash hobbles the budget process

July 12, 2014 

It’s unknown what the final state budget will look like, but two things are certain: It will include a surplus of bitterness and a deficit of trust.

Gov. Pat McCrory and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger ended the week of budget wrangling with a surprisingly combative exchange. And the bad blood between Republican senators and McCrory and the tension between the Senate and the House GOP leaders are likely to remain long after the revised two-year budget is settled.

McCrory, who barely made a peep as his fellow Republicans pushed through divisive and wrongheaded legislation last session, boldly announced that he will veto any budget that includes the Senate’s plan for an 11 percent increase in pay for public school teachers. The governor says the state can’t raise teacher pay that much and still meet its obligations elsewhere.

Berger fired back that McCrory’s vetoes last session were overridden and that he has no business making veto threats. The Senate leader’s statement added: “It would be more helpful for (the governor) to work with members of both chambers of the legislature, since his unwillingness to listen to those who have an honest disagreement with him on spending priorities in favor of staging media stunts and budget gimmicks is a major reason the budget has not been finalized.”

More strain on relations

The exchange makes for good theater, but the standoff will further strain the Senate’s frayed relationship with the House and the governor. Senators walked out of a conference committee meeting on the budget last week after House leaders called in local school superintendents to testify on the effect of the Senate’s proposed cuts. In late June, the governor and House Speaker Thom Tillis appeared at a news conference flanked by educators at which they rallied for the House budget plan.

The Senate wants to cut 7,400 teacher assistants and other school funding to help pay for the teacher raises. The Senate also proposes cuts in Medicaid that would push thousands of elderly and disabled people out of the program. The House wants a budget with a 6 percent hike in teacher pay that preserves assistants and other school funding.

Midterm conversions

One of the oddest parts of this spectacle is McCrory and House leaders sounding like Democrats. Speaking of the need to preserve Medicaid services, Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Cary, the chief House budget writer, said, “I don’t see those things as welfare. I see us treating our fellow – about 1.6 or 1.7 million – citizens of our state in a very humane way.”

McCrory declared: “I will veto the latest Senate plan or any plan that resembles it because I know of no financial way we can go beyond the House proposal without eliminating thousands of teacher assistants, cutting Medicaid recipients and putting at risk future core state services.”

This conversion would be impressive if it were sincere. But history says it’s not. Where were these Republican Hubert Humphreys when they said yes to tax cuts that have made a teacher raise so hard to fund? Where was their concern about their fellow citizens’ health care when they refused to expand Medicaid to cover hundreds of thousands of working poor North Carolinians?

The North Carolinian whom the governor and House Republicans most want to serve is Speaker Tillis, the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate. The draconian cuts the Senate proposes would doom his candidacy. Can Tillis survive TV ads focused on his vote for a state budget that would throw the aged and disabled off Medicaid?

This is what happens when this crop of Republican lawmakers who claim to be doing “the will of the people” face a statewide election that truly will reflect the will of the people. Their views become more moderate, perhaps even compassionate.

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