House budget writers are working overtime trying to put a budget to send back to the Senate so the two sides can come up with a final spending plan to send to Governor Mike Easley before the next fiscal year begins July 1.
The process is chaotic, subcommittees meeting in mornings and afternoons, going over spreadsheets that show the Senate’s spending in each area along side Easley’s with blanks left for House proposals.
There are now many more questions left than answers as the budget will soon move from the open subcommittees to private meetings of the handful of Appropriation Chairs that make the final decisions on what will be included in the bill that is unveiled sometime next week.
It is likely that the House budget will include some money for counties to help them defray the costs of Medicaid. North Carolina is now the only state in the country that forces local governments to pay for a share of Medicaid costs, a program that is out of their control.
House Democrats were told this week that the budget may go further than the proposed cap on the county share, which would cost $65 million. The Senate did not include any money for county Medicaid relief, but Senate leaders say they are still working on it, with one even mentioning the possibility of using lottery money to help.
Good for the House for including help for the counties, though it’s not clear where the money is coming from. The best way to pay for it would be by rejecting the Senate’s proposed tax cuts, especially the reduction in income tax for the richest individual taxpayers. Reportedly, House leaders are lukewarm about the tax cut anyway.
The most confusing budget news continues to swirl around what happens to all the proposals by members of the House and Senate for funding for projects in their districts, as well as money for statewide non-profits that serve special populations.
The Senate included virtually no spending for nonprofits in its budget and the House appears to be headed in the same direction and is reportedly considering removing special provisions from the Senate budget that have nothing to do with spending.
Senate leaders made a point of saying their budget included no pork barrel projects. House leaders want to go one better, leaving out pork barrel and special non budget provisions.
It is as if the two sides are playing chicken with the budget. Members in both chambers have filed dozens of bills for local appropriations and Senate leaders clearly believe that the provisions they included are important.
The final budget may include neither. That has spawned talk of another budget bill that will come later and include money for non-profits and individual projects.
That might be a tough sell in an election year, but many of the proposals are important and if they are debated and voted on in public instead of approved in a secret meeting, they might pass with less acrimony and criticism.
That would require a new process of writing the budget, with legislative leaders surrendering some of the power that comes from closed meetings and the ultimately authority of budget chairs. That is a process that is overdue.
There is still time for legislative leaders to make the right budget decisions the right way, by investing in people and the state institutions that serve them, and doing it in an open process that helps restore faith in the legislative process at the same time.