This editorial appeared in the Fayetteville Observer:
State lawmakers have a complex job description. But there are two fundamentals that underlie all of it: Set policy and appropriate the money needed to run the state.
We’re getting a textbook lesson this year in what happens when legislators try to mix those two jobs, turning the state budget into a policymaking device. It’s grinding everything to a halt, in ways that send havoc out to the cities and towns in a host of painful ways.
The new fiscal year began July 1, 42 days ago. We’ll be lucky to have a new budget adopted by Sept. 1.
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The artist drawing this chaotic scene is the N.C. Senate, which produced a budget nearly 200 pages longer than the House version. That’s because in addition to all the dollars and cents (about half a billion less than the House budget), the document is loaded with policy changes. There are sweeping revisions in Medicaid administration, the elimination of up to 8,500 teacher assistants and the hiring of 2,000 more teachers, cuts in income taxes and the imposition of new sales taxes, the elimination of driver education and more.
As a result, the House is bogged down analyzing the impact of the Senate’s proposed policy changes. “From the House’s perspective,” Rep. Chuck McGrady said, “the Senate had tied everything into a Gordian knot. Basically, the last month has been spent by the House trying to understand all the policy in the budget and considering how to untie the knot without conceding some rather significant policy positions in budget negotiations.” And government on every level across the state is equally bogged down, uncertain about the funding it depends on.
What that means in places like Fayetteville is that officials don’t know how much sales tax revenue they’ll get. The schools don’t know how much funding they’ll get or whether they can hire teachers or assistants.
None of this is new. In the past two decades, few budgets have been completed on time. The latest didn’t come together until Halloween – all trick, no treat.
It’s a terrible way to run one of the biggest states in the country. Unprofessional, inefficient – take your pick of negatives. It needs to change. Trouble is, the only institution that can change it is the source of the problem. Unless lawmakers rewrite their own procedures, we’re stuck with this mess.
When Republicans took control of the General Assembly, they vowed to run it better than the Democrats did. So far, that’s a thoroughly broken promise.
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