Under the Dome

Democrats sidelined in legislature’s budget talks

State Senator Phil Berger R-Rockingham listens to debate the HB 97 2015 Appropriations Act bill in the NC Senate Wednesday afternoon, June 17, 2015.
State Senator Phil Berger R-Rockingham listens to debate the HB 97 2015 Appropriations Act bill in the NC Senate Wednesday afternoon, June 17, 2015. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Back in July, House Speaker Tim Moore made a surprise move: He appointed 19 Democrats to the 82-member House budget conference committee.

The Democrats had voted for the original House budget, and Moore said that putting them on the official negotiating team showed bipartisanship.

“This represents the way we’ve governed this year: We’ve been very inclusive and encouraged participation on both sides of the aisle, and we want to be very transparent in the process,” he said at the time. “We felt like having a large number of conferees – making sure all voices are heard – that it would help the process.”

House Democratic Leader Larry Hall was skeptical, saying the 19 would “get a seat in the audience rather than a seat at the table.”

Two months later, the Democrats haven’t even joined the audience for the budget talks. Negotiators from both chambers announced Friday evening that they’d reached a deal, but they said no specifics would be released until Monday.

One of the Democrats appointed, Rep. Tricia Cotham of Mecklenburg County, said she hasn’t been involved in any budget meetings, but Moore told the appointees that he hopes to hold one if the schedule allows.

Under House rules, the formal conference committee doesn’t actually have to meet, but a majority of the appointees from each chamber must sign the compromise bill before it heads to the floor.

Who’s in the room?

Most of the budget talks have involved a core group of Republican leaders: Senate leader Phil Berger, Moore and three or four Appropriations Committee chairs from each side. The powerful Rules Committee chairmen, Sen. Tom Apodaca and Rep. David Lewis, have also participated.

As the negotiations ramped up, neither the House nor Senate held votes on other bills last week.

So what have the 150 or so other legislators been up to? Many of them stayed home last week, but a few made the trek to Raleigh.

“My schedule has been more about keeping up with constituent work, making sure that I respond to emails, and sort of keeping my ear to the ground as far as what’s going to happen next with the budget,” said Rep. Susan Fisher, an Asheville Democrat.

And while Fisher’s district is a four-hour drive from Raleigh, she said there’s plenty of interest in the overdue budget back home.

“They are paying attention, and they are asking questions, and they want to know why it’s taking so long,” he said. “If I can add to their information, either some understanding or some reality, then I’m happy to do that.”

Largely sidelined as House Republicans work toward an agreement with Senate Republicans, Democrats held a news conference Thursday to criticize the budget and the closed-door negotiation process.

Conflicting messages

Hall said he’s heard conflicting messages from leadership in recent weeks.

“One minute we have a deal on (funding for) teacher assistants, then we don’t,” he said. “There were general agreements that there wouldn’t be policy changes in the budget, then they show up.”

Hall also criticized a tentative agreement to include about $110 million in unspecified tax cuts to offset a 30 percent increase in Division of Motor Vehicles fee. Legislative leaders haven’t provided details of the cuts.

“It has a regressive effect,” Hall said. “It’s going to be shifting the tax burden to those who can least afford it.”

The House’s newest member, Rep. Billy Richardson of Fayetteville, said the budget should instead restore tax credits for small businesses and historic preservation projects. The historic tax credit is popular with the House and Gov. Pat McCrory, but negotiators said last week that they hadn’t decided on whether to include it.

“We have chambers of commerce across the state begging to put back the historic tax credit,” Richardson said. “If we’re going to do tax relief, let’s do intelligent tax relief.”

During a House session last week, Moore told Democrats that he’d spent several hours with the Republican caucus updating them on budget talks. He offered to provide the minority party with the same update.

Hall says he’ll accept the speaker’s offer – but with a few concerns.

“We don’t need a publicity stunt, we need information so we can represent our constituents,” he said. “I’m not going to be in favor of him coming in the door with the budget hot off the presses. We want to be a partner in the process.”

Colin Campbell

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