I’ve always likened North Carolina’s budget process to a dance, but this year it is hard to tell whether it’s a boogaloo, dosey-doe or the chicken dance. Longtime observers say they’ve never seen anything like what’s taking place.
It started last Monday, when Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore called a press conference to announce they have resolved their respective chambers’ differences and agreed on a budget, but they weren’t going to tell what was in it until Gov. Cooper presented his counter offer to them.
Nobody saw that coming. Nothing like that has been done before, at least not publicly. What was going on? Some pundits said legislators knew the budget was going to get Gov. Cooper’s big veto stamp and they were calling his bluff. On Wednesday, in an about face, legislative leaders went ahead and released their budget details. Was this a carefully orchestrated and preordained strategy?
Both dance partners (the legislature and the governor) have backed into corners of the ballroom, pointing fingers at the other. Lawmakers claim the governor won’t participate. Cooper says they weren’t seriously willing to consider his agenda anyway and this was a ploy.
House Speaker Tim Moore stood at the podium and boldly declared this budget was not about partisan politics. Au contraire, Mr. Speaker. Once again, the budget has gone from being a carefully orchestrated minuet to a wild and wooly chicken dance. What happens next? We begin the new fiscal year without a new budget. We just continue to operate using the current spending plan.
This has gone far beyond being about the budget. Both sides are posturing and strategizing what will resonate best with voters in 2020. Republicans believe they have a winning strategy in complaining that our governor – therefore all Democrats – is robbing our school children, teachers and state employees of reasonable pay raises and just want to increase spending and raise taxes. Gov. Cooper is banking on convincing voters that our legislators – therefore all Republicans – care more about corporations than some 500,000 residents who could have health insurance. He will say that legislators’ pay raises and spending for education are inadequate, especially when lawmakers stockpile millions in savings. They care more about the wealthy than the rest of us.
The big question is whether a Cooper budget veto will stick. The Senate demonstrated with the “born alive” abortion veto that they can override a veto. The House is another issue. Pressure will be applied to Democratic legislators from more conservative districts that they shouldn’t hold up pay raises and badly needed school funds and instead join in supporting the budget, i.e. overriding Cooper’s veto. Democrats will be courting those same members, saying it is important to stand up to Republicans and support their governor. On both sides there will be threats that not supporting their tribe will most certainly guarantee the incumbents get primary opponents next March.
When you get 50 miles outside of Raleigh most people aren’t even paying attention, as confirmed by the fact that the Raleigh newspaper had the budget story on page three.
Regardless of party, irrespective of what you think about this budget, you have to agree this is a lousy way to run a state. We deserve better than going through dance competitions like this.
Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and is creator/host of “NC Spin,” a weekly statewide television discussion of North Carolina issues that airs on UNC-TV. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.