Early this month, the leader of the state Senate, Phil Berger, announced a compromise in what has become a protracted state budget negotiation. Berger said his chamber would agree to a specific target for state spending – more than what the Senate wanted but less than in the House version of the state’s proposed spending plan.
As Berger spoke, he mentioned only one legislator on the other side of the talks by name: Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Republican from Cary who is the House’s senior budget writer. Berger publicly urged Dollar to “work with us.”
Berger’s remarks highlight the central role Dollar plays in the budget – and the impasse, which officials said on Tuesday would all but certainly extend beyond the current Aug. 31 deadline.
In the state Senate, three people share the lead on the writing of the state budget.
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In the House, Dollar holds an equivalent role.
Officially, he is senior chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Unofficially, he’s the House gatekeeper.
That position has made him a frequent target for criticism. When Democrats criticize the pace of the budget process, which has dragged out longer than any budget in more than a decade, they mention Dollar. And when the complaints come from Senate Republicans, it’s that Dollar’s House budget – with a 5 percent spending increase over the last fiscal year – wasn’t conservative enough.
“I think the biggest criticism of Rep. Dollar, and probably more from the Senate, has been the speed,” said Rep. Donny Lambeth, who serves under Dollar as one of three House budget co-chairs. “Some of us get very impatient in wanting to move forward, and he has a very deliberate style in making sure we get all the i’s dotted and all the t’s crossed, and we don’t make a mistake.”
Budget writers from both chambers have been meeting almost daily in recent weeks. A breakthrough came last week when the two sides agreed to a total spending level of $21.735 billion.
But on Tuesday it became clear that no budget will be in place by next week’s deadline.
Legislative leaders were working out the details of a third extension of their deadline to adopt a state budget, which will take them at least into the middle of September.
The compromise spending target amounts to about $415 million less than what the House has wanted.
House negotiators, including Dollar, have said that makes it difficult to pay for all they hoped for, such as a 2 percent raise for state employees, additional money for teacher pay and protecting teacher assistants’ jobs. The Senate wants to put money into hiring more teachers to make classes smaller.
Democrats on Tuesday used the latest delay to needle the Republican majority.
The Democratic Party sent out a critical news release. Democratic Whip Sen. Terry Van Duyn of Asheville, meanwhile, rose on the Senate floor and recited the costs of not coming up with a budget: 56 days have passed since the end of the fiscal year, with 28 days spent in session at a reported $42,000 for each weekday, amounting to more than $1 million.
“How are negotiations going?” Van Duyn asked. “Do we need to pull names for Secret Santa?”
Early on, senators had criticized their House counterparts for refusing to schedule private budget negotiating meetings.
Dollar said legislators wanted to better understand the impacts of the 500-page Senate budget before moving forward.
Dollar, 54, is a longtime political and public relations consultant who helps coordinate campaigns for fellow House Republicans and other GOP candidates. His firm, J. N. Dollar & Associates, booked nearly $150,000 of work for the N.C. Republican Party in the last election cycle, according to reports filed with the State Board of Elections.
He was first elected to the House in 2004, defeating a six-term Democrat who’d come under fire for supporting Cary’s efforts to annex more neighborhoods.
Prior to 2004, Dollar had run unsuccessfully for Cary Town Council and state labor commissioner. The Alamance County native has been active in state and local politics since he graduated from Appalachian State University in 1985 and spent the next four years as a special assistant to Republican Gov. Jim Martin.
Like most Republicans, Dollar was a back-bencher until his party took control of the House and Senate in 2010. Under Speaker Thom Tillis, he took leadership roles on health and budget committees. Tillis made him the senior budget writer in 2013; House Speaker Tim Moore left him in the job this year while replacing two other leading budget writers.
“What I think he brings is the experience in maneuvering through a very tedious political process,” Lambeth said.
Dollar is soft-spoken and speaks slowly, taking time to choose his words carefully. As this year’s budget negotiations have continued, he answers questions from reporters almost every day about the private talks.
He always makes time for a budget update – but he almost always doesn’t offer much in the way of specifics. “We’re continuing to work with our Senate,” he told reporters last week. “There has been a lot of discussion, a lot of issues vetted. It’s a long process, and so it takes time to work through those.”
Rep. Bryan Holloway, a Stokes County Republican and former budget writer, described a similar approach by Dollar in private negotiations.
“He keeps his cards close to his vest,” Holloway said. “He was not the most talkative person in the room.”
Holloway said he’s glad Dollar and other budget writers this session have been in no hurry to give up House priorities such as teacher assistants. Avoiding the delay, he noted, “would require us to cave in to the Senate.”
Dollar acknowledges that the agreed spending target will make it hard for state employee raises and other items from the House budget to fit in the final product. “I think all of the above is going to be impacted,” he said last week.
And while he says he expected the two chambers would pick a number in the middle, the final number isn’t exactly the midpoint: It’s $415 million less than the House plan and $265 million more than the Senate’s proposal.