The growing concentration of power and the long overdue budget

By: - September 10, 2015 7:29 am


It’s been more than a month since the state House voted to put a $2.85 billion bond issue before voters in November that would pay for infrastructure improvements and construction of buildings on university and community college campuses and set up a $500 million fund to help counties build schools.

The bond issue is a top priority of Governor Pat McCrory and he’s right about it. The projects are important and overdue and would create jobs across the state.

The bond proposal disappeared after the House vote. The Senate never took it up, instead burying it a committee that never meets.

But this week as key House and Senate leaders huddled behind closed doors trying to reach an agreement on a final state budget that is now more than two months late, the bond proposal apparently resurfaced.

House Speaker Tim Moore tweeted this week that legislative leaders have also been meeting in secret about the bond bill, though he didn’t reveal any details.

It appears Senators may never have a chance to debate the bond bill separately, to offer amendments to add projects, to hold public hearings so the people they represent can weigh in on how the state should spend almost $3 billion that lawmakers want the state to borrow on taxpayers’ behalf.

President Pro Tem Phil Berger and a few of his top lieutenants will decide that on their own in private talks with a few folks from the House.

Moore also told reporters this week that environmental issues had become part of the secret budget talks, presumably referring to a Senate proposal to lift the cap on the number of terminal groins allowed to be built off the coast to control beach erosion.

The General Assembly lifted a 30-year ban on the groins and other controversial erosion control devices in 2011, approving four pilot projects despite compelling evidence that the groins don’t work and increase erosion in adjacent coastal areas.

The proposal to increase the number of projects was not part of the House or Senate budget, meaning that under legislative rules it’s not eligible to be part of the final budget agreement, but there are no rules in secret budget negotiations.

There may be other environmental changes inserted in the budget in the backrooms too. Nobody knows with the possible exception of some well-connected lobbyists patrolling the halls near the rooms where the secret meetings take place.

Berger and Moore can do almost anything they want. Nobody’s really watching. Nobody is allowed to watch.

News accounts this week identified proposed tax changes as one possible stumbling block to a final budget deal but then reported that House leaders had agreed to more than $100 million in new tax cuts that were not part of its original budget.

That may come as a surprise to state employees and most teachers who were told recently there was no money available to give them a raise. Instead they will only get a one-time $750 bonus.

The new tax breaks are in addition to another round of corporate tax cuts that both the House and Senate both included in their spending plans.

There were no details about which additional taxes will be cut. Most House members will find out next week or whenever the details of long overdue budget deal are finally made public. And there will be no opportunity to change anything or even slow down and let the people weigh in.

Most of the news coverage of the backroom wheeling and dealing has focused on funding for teacher assistants and driver’s ed, but there are literally hundreds of other decisions being made, many of which have never been debated publicly in the House or Senate.

The Senate budget included a provision discovered only after the budget passed that would end retiree health benefits for teachers and state workers hired after January 1, 2016. There’s been no word on what Moore and Berger have decided about that.

Lawmakers upset about the radical change in benefits for state employees or the expansion of the controversial erosion control devices or the projects chosen for the bond issue have few choices when the legislative leaders finally reveal the details of their budget.

The final budget deal cannot be amended. There’s only an up or down vote and few legislators in the majority party would dare vote against it.

That would only leave a veto by Gov. McCrory, another unlikely possibility with the overdue budget already creating problems for schools and other state agencies, not to mention the political embarrassment for Republicans who control all three branches of government.

House rules do require that the budget be available to the public 72 hours before a final vote. But Moore can get around that rule too if he needs to or simply cite the budget deadline as a reason to suspend it. Moore and Berger can do anything in those secret rooms.

They have almost all the power. The rest of the lawmakers, and most importantly the people they represent, have very little to say about it.

That’s not the way our democracy is supposed to work.

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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