NC Senate’s packed budget needs closer scrutiny

All you need to know about the state Senate’s budget proposal is that its authors don’t want you to know much.

The $21.47 billion spending plan is crammed with new policies and administrative changes. The nonspending elements should be considered by themselves with a reasonable period of public hearings and comment. By stuffing them into the budget, Republicans get to slam it through under one cover.

And slam is the plan. After budget deliberations that went on for weeks behind closed doors, Senate leader Phil Berger revealed the plan’s highlights on Monday. Then lawmakers, lobbyists, media and others crowded into small subcommittee meeting rooms – the crowd sometimes spilling into hallways – to hear the details. Berger expects a final Senate vote by Thursday.

The proposed spending plan calls for the continued strangulation of the state budget, offering a meager 2 percent spending increase when the state should be trying to restore spending cut during the Great Recession and suppressed despite the recovery. It gives a pay boost to most teachers but cuts their resources by eliminating more than 8,500 teacher assistant jobs. It offers no across-the-board increase for state employees. It proposes further cuts in the University of North Carolina system.

The budget also offers a slew of policy changes. It would take Medicaid administration away for the state Department of Health and Human Services and turn management of the $13 billion program over to an agency not subject to the state personnel law and led by politically appointed managers who would select private health insurance companies to run the program. It’s a formula for patient neglect and private company profiteering that could be influenced by campaign contributions.

The budget also includes another round of personal and corporate income tax cuts despite a lack of evidence that the cuts are spurring the state economy. A U.S. Department of Commerce analysis shows that North Carolina’s growth rate slowed to 1.4 percent last year, down from 2.3 percent in 2013. It was also below the national rate of 2.2 percent and the growth rates of South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

Berger has compounded the hazards of this secretive and sweeping spending plan by pushing for a quick vote with less than two weeks before the start of the new fiscal year on July 1. The process is as bad as the content.

“We’re not going to have any opportunity for public comment,” said Sen. Terry Van Duyn, an Asheville Democrat. “I would really like to hear from a hospital administrator. I’d like to hear from teachers about what it means to them. I’d like to hear from university administrators about what it means to them. They don’t get a seat at the table, and I think that’s kind of scary.”

Well, Sen. Duyn, you’re not going to hear from those affected because this is a bill that can’t survive a full vetting. It was drawn in private and will go through with minimal public review. The forces pushing it are not conservative. They’re radical. Despite their control of the Senate majority, they know many elements of this budget would not be supported by the majority of North Carolinians.

The only hope now is that the House insists on a more deliberative process that allows for wider public evaluation and comment, a process that could derail some of the extreme Senate proposals and offer more investment in North Carolina.