As the House and Senate work toward a state budget compromise for this fiscal year, it’s sometimes hard to separate serious legislative proposals from negotiating tactics.
Both Republican-controlled chambers clearly want the upper hand in talks – their budgets are far apart, not only in dollar amounts but in policy and priorities too. They will go to great extents to try to shame or otherwise convince each other to give in to certain demands – through public relations stunts, legislative maneuvers and well-timed talks with TV cameras and news releases.
Earlier this session, the Senate passed a 500-plus-page spending plan full of contentious policy provisions, from sales-tax redistribution to a major overhaul of Medicaid operations. Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican and the House’s senior budget chairman, called the Senate budget a “mammoth negotiating scheme.” In other words, the Senate threw its wish list into its budget so some of its desires – no matter how controversial – would end up in the final budget and become law.
The House also has done its share of budget maneuvering, trying to win the public-relations battle by inviting education and economic-development officials to public hearings to criticize Senate ideas and reinforce House proposals, such as more money for teacher assistants. Senators responded by saying House budget officials are too busy holding meetings to sit down and talk about the differences.
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That brings us to week before last, when the Senate quickly resurrected and started moving a Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, which would put language in the N.C. Constitution to limit spending and boost state savings if voters support the changes.
Senate leaders also held a news conference to say they would pull Medicaid provisions, sales-tax redistribution and economic incentives out of the budget to be considered as separate legislation. But there was a catch. The Senate urged the House to agree to a state budget spending no more than $21.65 billion in the 2015-16 fiscal year, which would roughly equal the amount of spending that would be allowed if a “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” already existed in the Constitution.
That much spending would mean the House would have to trim its adopted budget by about $500 million, while the Senate would have to add $180 million in spending, hardly an equal trade-off. Is it a coincidence the Senate started moving a TABOR bill, which most conservatives across the state are sure to support, at the same time it’s trying to get the House to agree to spend much less in the final state budget?
The TABOR discussion also comes as the House approved legislation to ask voters during the March presidential primary whether they want a nearly $3 billion bond package to pay for university buildings, roads, parks and other infrastructure across the state.
So a Republican-dominated Senate committee voted in favor of TABOR legislation, which would constitutionally limit any annual growth in state spending to increases in population and inflation. At the same time, the House voted to ask voters to borrow nearly $3 billion.
Is the Senate trying to make itself look like the fiscally conservative chamber and portray the House as big spenders to try to convince the House to agree to spend less?
And will it work?
We’ll find out soon enough.
Patrick Gannon writes about state government and politics.