Dear North Carolina lawmakers, can the budget theatrics

June 20, 2019 11:50 am

There’s a scene in “The West Wing” – liberals’ sweaty, Emmy-hording ode to progressivism – in which President Bartlett, facing a budget bait-and-switch from his erstwhile Republican nemeses, shuts down the government.

Bartlett – a hopelessly fictional hero, a pastiche of a moralistic, square-jawed liberal played by Martin Sheen with Shakespearean gusto – seems riven but resolute.

“Let’s be clear, sir,” the GOP Speaker of the House declares. “You’ll be held responsible for shutting down the federal government.”

“Then shut it down,” Bartlett commands, like a switch-wielding grandpa. Cue the tympani and the theme.

Fiction is fun. Non-fiction, the sort we’re living in North Carolina, with ten days until the start of the fiscal year – when the new state budget is supposed to go into effect – is so much more dour.

Gov. Cooper spokesperson Sadie Weiner summoned President Bartlett Tuesday when she excoriated GOP lawmakers for their backdoor dramatics in one discordant budget meeting.

It seems Republicans – who have known since time immemorial that Cooper would demand Medicaid expansion – bristled at the governor’s desire to broach the program at said meeting, even if the Democrat has not stated that he would veto the entire plan in the absence of expansion.

“We just feel like that one item shouldn’t dictate the rest of the conversation,” Sen. Harry Brown, the Jacksonville Republican who chairs the Senate budget committee, told WRAL Tuesday. “We’re willing to sit down with the governor and have negotiations and conversations and try to work out the differences, but it shouldn’t be an ultimatum based on one item.”

“No one likes to see the sausage made,” the fictional Sen. Robert Royce bemoaned to Bartlett on “The West Wing.” “Including the guys who make it.”

Maybe, but if this is how the sausage is made, it’s on a level more puerile than we might have imagined.

Yes, Donald Trump, the man who inspired bully Biff’s dystopic presidential conquest in “Back to the Future 2,” is commander-in-chief, but we do not, despite our present condition, live in a fictional world. Yet our political leaders govern as if we do, as if the state employees, teachers, and North Carolinians who depend on a state budget are extras in a lurid, political thriller. As if there’s something contrived about hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians who might, if Medicaid is expanded, enjoy the palpable relief of a doctor’s visit.

If these are the opening ceremonies of our negotiations, we will surely be enmeshed in budget talks when summer’s humidity fades and traditional school pupils return to school.

Ask yourself if North Carolina school systems – for whom budget uncertainty is a Kilimanjaro-sized migraine – are pleased with that notion.

If this is the first step in some partisan’s 10-step plan for negotiating a budget, we’re all weary, skip to step nine.

This is a breathtakingly beautiful state, but in moments like this, its politics are crushingly ugly.

Even if North Carolina Republicans have not, for the better part of a decade, faced the galling necessity of compromise, Cooper’s office has signaled a willingness, if not an affinity, for negotiation, at times angering their core supporters over the haggling. HB2’s repeal and odious replacement comes to mind.

But this week, the governor’s suggested an imminently reasonable, two-pronged track for negotiation, in which one gaggle of officials gnashes their teeth over health care and Medicaid, the other over the budget’s remaining points of contention, of which there are more stars in the night sky, but only by a handful.

Democrats want to boost state services, schools and healthcare; Republicans want their tax cuts, because surely they must face some ghastly withdrawal if we’ve gone twelve months without one.

Cooper’s people seem eager to begin the real process of budget discussion now, the part where corporeal pressures converge to impose upon leaders that they should deliberate as if their political careers depend upon it.

Cooper’s office seems to understand – even if their legislative counterparts do not – that our leaders are not here, after all, to pontificate in our public chambers and drink our public coffee and gobble ink space. They are not here to play a part on the stage.

Absent disaster relief, lawmakers should view their jobs as one in which their core ambition should be to leave.  They are here to arrive at a spending plan, efficiently, coherently, and – God forbid – transparently, even if that last ship steamed out of port long ago.

They are here to behave as if a legislative session is better a memory and an afterthought, and our budget better a working document than a tortured hypothesis.

Both sides should be at the table today, now, not in a month or two when the public grows weary of the antics. North Carolina and its people will endure without the dramatics. Summer popcorn flicks are more fun anyhow.

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Billy Ball

Billy Ball, worked at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020 — first as an education reporter and later as managing editor.