Looking at state budget, don’t overlook ‘extras’

By: - August 22, 2005 5:13 am

Winston-Salem Journal

RALEIGH – Each morning for the past two weeks, North Carolinians have woken to news about items legislators slipped into the $17.2 billion budget.

One day the news is that the University of North Carolina will now count outsiders as in-state residents, or that health-insurance plans must treat chiropractors more generously or that Gov. Mike Easley now controls all State Board of Elections appointments.

Legislators were gone this week, so reporters and legislative observers had time to study the budget bill and find what legislators added without telling the public.

Anyone who has tried to buy a car with tinted windows but no CD player knows the legislature’s game. In private, legislative leaders pack the budget bill with special favors for friends – some related to the budget, others not – and then present the bill for a take-it-or-leave-it vote. Rank-and-file legislators either vote for it, complete with funds for schools, prisons, highways, health programs and goodies for the House speaker’s friends, or they don’t.

Legislators do retain the right to propose amendments to the budget bill, within certain guidelines, but they often don’t know what is in the bill. Budget bills are enormous, and the language is often cryptic. Given the 24 hours legislators usually get – at most – to review the budget bill, it’s very likely that the sincere at heart wouldn’t even know what amendments to offer.

The extras are called "special provisions." They often change laws that have nothing to do with the budget. The legislative leadership slips them into the budget to avoid the inconvenience of the legislative process. It is akin to a team that doesn’t have to play the regular season; it goes straight to the championship game.

The N.C. Center for Public Policy Research has been tracking this practice for almost 30 years. The center’s director, Ran Coble, says the new budget is one of the worst he’s ever seen for special provisions, both in their number and in the significance of the changes made.

"This process goes in cycles," Coble said. There have been times when legislative leaders refrained from using special provisions and times when they’ve used them extravagantly.

A 1999 center report determined that 33 states have some means of restricting budget provisions for substantive changes to law – most through their constitution. Coble suggests a statute. He’s a lawyer and thinks there’d be legal recourse to challenge legal changes made through special provisions. His opinion runs counter to the rule that the legislature can break any law it wants so long as it does so with a newer law. Therefore, a statute would be meaningless because subsequent budgets would overrule the statute.

A constitutional amendment would not be meaningless. It would stop the practice. But that raises the question of how to write such an amendment. One possibility is the line-item veto for budgets, so the governor could clip these provisions out. That idea has two flaws. Governors are just as likely to seek substantive legal changes through special provisions as are legislators. Gov. Mike Easley was behind the elections board change, and former Gov. Jim Hunt loved to use special provisions. Also, a line-item veto would give North Carolina’s already powerful governor even more power.

A more likely amendment would simply restrict the use of substantive changes to those directly related to spending items in that budget. It would then be up to the courts to define what was substantive change to law and what was not. Of course, all of this talk of changing legislative operations is fantasy. Legislative leaders wouldn’t let that kind of reform get through the legislature.

• Paul O’Connor writes editorials for the Journal from Raleigh. He can be reached at [email protected]

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066