The state budget process, which is about to begin in earnest, is like making a pizza.
Start with the dough. That’s the revenue – about $21 billion in this fiscal year. Everything on the pizza must fit within the dough. If it overflows, you don’t have a balanced budget, which is required by the N.C. Constitution.
Most of us contribute flour – taxes and fees – for the dough. Lawmakers will debate whether they have too much dough or not enough, whether they should lower corporate and personal tax rates again or whether state government needs more money to adequately fund education and other programs.
Pizza also needs sauce. The sauce represents what the state must pay for, including public education and Medicaid, which combined make up roughly 80 percent of the 2014-15 budget.
Then, there’s the cheese, which holds everything together. In North Carolina, the cheese includes the Department of Public Safety, the courts system, the departments of Environment and Natural Resources and Transportation and other cabinet agencies that protect residents and visitors, preserve the environment and otherwise make our lives a little easier.
Of course, the amount of cheese on the pizza is up for debate. Some Democrats like extra cheese. Many Republicans want to go light on it.
Then comes the hardest part – choosing extra toppings. Kind of like buying pizza for your family, the toppings bring about the most discussion and contention. Do you want sausage, mushrooms and pineapple? Or one or two of those?
In the budget, the toppings represent nonessential items, perhaps drug-treatment courts, teacher training programs, extra classroom supplies, additional state troopers or teacher assistants or a new program to help revive the oyster population along the coast. You get the idea. The possibilities are almost endless, like they are at a good pizza shop.
And here’s where it gets tricky. Every year, toppings that a few lawmakers really want, but might not be able to convince a majority of their colleagues to put on the pizza, get thrown on top. Maybe it’s a significant change in education policy (anchovies) or some type of tax credit or incentive for a particular industry (garlic).
As with any choice, some decision-makers have more sway over the process. Powerful legislators might convince their colleagues to go for anchovies or garlic, as long as the pepperoni stays on or they throw in some green peppers.
After the House and Senate each decide separately what they want on their pizza, a small group of House and Senate members will meet in a what’s known as a conference committee – probably behind closed doors – to decide what goes on the final pie and what comes off. They’ll emerge with a spending plan that all legislators vote on. At that point, they won’t be able to remove or add any toppings. It’s eat it or go hungry.
And if the recent past is any indication, most Republicans will scarf that pizza down even if they have to plug their noses when they get to the anchovies. Most Democrats will head for the nearest burger joint, unhappy with what’s on their pizza and what’s not.
Patrick Gannon writes about state government and politics.