When he introduced the state Senate’s budget plan, Senate leader Phil Berger stressed that it was a product of careful deliberation and compromise.
In truth it was the opposite. The plan was ill-conceived and ignored the priorities of the House budget plan. It was jammed with major policy changes and drum-tight on spending. Predictably, the so-called product of compromise became an obstacle to agreement.
As a result, North Carolina sailed past the end of the fiscal year on June 30 without a budget and is drifting along under a temporary spending agreement that expires this Friday. The delay does more than keep lawmakers in Raleigh. It keeps schools in suspense about how much money they will be allocated to hire teachers and other staff with the start of school looming just two weeks away.
Republicans certainly didn’t invent protracted sessions, but they have bungled the budget process in way that may be unprecedented. Last year the Republican-led General Assembly changed the way school funds are provided. Previously it was automatic funding based on student population. Now funding depends on what the legislature decides to appropriate. That made schools captive to the budgeting process and subject to nail-biting uncertainly as they set up staffing for the new school year.
Larding the budget with policy also complicates the process and deprives the public of hearings on major changes. The Senate’s original proposal included an overhaul of Medicaid and an economic development plan that calls for a major shift in how local sales tax revenue is distributed.
Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson Republican and a House budget writer, made an appropriate point in a blog post last week: “From the House’s perspective, the Senate had tied everything into a Gordian knot. Basically, the last month has been spent by the House trying to understand all the policy in the budget and considering how to untie the knot without conceding some rather significant policy positions in budget negotiations.”
Berger announced last week that he was unpacking the big policy issues from the budget in order to speed a spending plan through. Medicaid and sales tax changes will be considered separately.
That’s progress, but what remains is still contentious. The House should stand firm on spending level $500 million higher than the senate’s $21.65 billion budget. Senate Republicans are being disingenuous by claiming that their proposed 2.7 percent increase keeps up with inflation and population growth. That increase is based on a budget still deflated by the recession. With the economy improving, the state needs to spend more on needs neglected for more than five years.