Garner: Opinion

Budget offers food for thought

The long-running joke in the halls of the Legislative Building is that a governor’s state budget proposal enjoys a life of about 24 hours before legislative budget writers dump the document in the trash.

Of course, the joke is an exaggeration.

The state’s general operating budget, now around $20 billion, is the most important piece of legislation that state lawmakers pass each year, even as social legislation or other pieces of policy garner more public attention.

The budget is state government’s setting of priorities.

As such, legislators will have their say, and a lot of it.

Without line-item veto power, a governor only has two real means of getting legislators to go along with his or her to-do list: cajole, woo and threaten them, or veto the whole works.

Typically, some of that cajoling has an effect, at least when the legislative majority and governor are of the same political party.

But even if the larger part of a governor’s budget plan eventually goes into the dump, the document acts as a statement of his or her priorities too.

In the case of Gov. Pat McCrory’s first proposed budget, the message was pretty clear: See, I am that modern, pro-business centrist.

The budget plan included no broad, sweeping new programs. When accounting for how much money is being poured into various emergency reserves, it doesn’t really raise spending.

What it does is provide some real meat for liberals, moderates and pocket-book conservatives, even if not in the amounts that some might like.

McCrory, at a news conference in the House chamber of the old Capitol, with its creaky antique furnishings, almost immediately began talking about a proposal to restore money to pre-K, early childhood education.

His budget would put another $26 million into the program, opening up another 5,000 enrollment slots for at-risk 4-year olds. (More than half of the money would come from redirecting lottery earnings.)

The governor also wants to set aside $10 million to compensate victims of the state’s reprehensible eugenics sterilization program that ended in the early 1970s. McCrory’s move comes after the state House approved a similar measure last year, while the Senate failed to move the legislation.

The McCrory proposal pumps about $40 million into new school technology, money aimed at putting tablets and other computer devices into the hands of schoolchildren.

He would restore money for the state’s drug-treatment court one year after legislators ended them and provide a modest 1-percent raise for state employees.

For the financially conservative, more reserves should reduce future taxing pressures.

McCrory would put another $400 million into the state emergency Rainy Day fund, roughly doubling the fund, and create a separate $77 million information technology reserve.

Scattered throughout the proposal are various cuts that will provide plenty of fodder for critics.

But with this budget, McCrory draws some clear distinctions between himself and some of the more conservative legislators down the street.

Now, we will find out whether it matters.

Scott Mooneyham is a syndicated columnist who writes about state government and politics.