Cut from the NC budget: Democracy

Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, the House's top budget writer, says there is no need to debate the second-year of the current two-year state budget.
Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, the House's top budget writer, says there is no need to debate the second-year of the current two-year state budget.

Just a week after more than 15,000 North Carolina teachers marched on the State Capitol demanding change, they got a change – but not the one they wanted. Instead of lawmakers debating how much the state should spend to increase teacher pay and boost funding for school support personnel, textbooks and school safety, the General Assembly’s Republican leaders have shut down the discussion.

Legislative leaders have announced that the second half of the current two-year budget will be settled behind closed doors, then offered for a vote as a conference report. That means lawmakers can vote yes or no, but no amendments are allowed.

Traditionally, lawmakers come back for a short session a year after passing a two-year budget to adjust the second year’s spending. And Republicans have made adjustments, including adding funds for school safety and raises for state employees. But the full extent of their changes won’t be known until the budget is released, probably this week.

This bit of parliamentary chicanery is the Republicans’ latest assault on the democratic process. They’ve undermined voting rights, illegally gerrymandered voting districts, truncated the public hearing process and arrested more than a thousand protesters. Now they want to put a plan on how to spend billions of taxpayers’ dollars into law without giving any lawmaker a chance to propose changes.

In a backhanded way, this is a response to those marching teachers and the political pressure they’ve generated.

With an election looming in November, the Republicans’ veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate are in jeopardy. Energized Democrats have launched a blitz that includes fielding a Democratic candidate in all 170 legislative districts.

Barring the offering of amendments will block all rank-in-file members, but particularly Democrats, from forcing votes on more pay for teachers, changes in gun laws in response to school shootings or whether the state should go ahead with another $900 million in tax cuts scheduled for 2019.

“We’re supposed to be a deliberative body,” said Rep. Billy Richardson, a Cumberland County Democrat. “We’re supposed to have public input. We’re supposed to have all members participate in the process and essentially the vast majority of the members have been excluded.”

Rather than concede that they’re ducking those debates, Republicans are claiming there’s nothing left to discuss. Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican and the House’s chief budget writer, said, “Most of the budgeting was done for the second year last year in the budget. It was obviously fully debated, fully discussed, fully amended.”

In other words, the Republicans did the democracy thing last year. This year, they’re doing a mix of autocracy and plutocracy.

Senate leader Phil Berger considers offering amendments to the budget an affront to what he’s decided about how the state should spend taxpayers’ money. But steamrolling the state budget shows a lack of confidence on the part of Republican leaders that their legislative priorities have or can gain popular support.

When Republicans were in the legislative minority, they criticized Democrats for ramming the state budget through near the end of the session and limiting debate. Those Republicans were right (and their comments were widely reported in the press).

Now that Republican are in control, they've doubled-down on the Democrats' shortcomings and made the legislative budget process something only a Soviet leader would admire. For the first time in more than 30 years — and maybe the first time ever — budget bills will not be open to amendment in our new N.C. Politburo. Comrades Berger and Tim Moore can rest assured that Vladimir Putin must be proud.