Slamming the budget door

Slamming the budget door

- in Fitzsimon File

The Senate gave final approval to its version of the state budget Thursday, though even if you happened to be at the Legislative Building in Raleigh, you would have almost certainly missed it.  The Senator who represents you had no opportunity to say anything at all about how the state should address a $4 billion shortfall and balance the budget, much less offer any amendments to protect human services or spare public schools from damaging cuts.

The Senate leadership made sure of that Wednesday when Majority Leader Tony Rand invoked a parliamentary maneuver to end discussion after budget writers described the plan's highlights, a few Republicans complained, and a few amendments were buried.

Under the Senate rules, ending the debate on Wednesday also ended it Thursday before it could begin.

There wasn't much discussion of the amendments either. Rand moved to table each one not long after they were explained and several of his Democratic colleagues enthusiastically vied to second his motion.

If you are tempted to brush all this off as a boring legislative procedure, resist the urge. The process is not only undemocratic and offensive, it is a symbol of the worst of the legislative culture.

Yet virtually everyone in the Legislative Building accepts it, not troubled by the concentration of power and the backroom budget writing.   Republicans complain some, but not nearly enough. Senate Democrats don't dare say anything.

If they have any objections to how their leaders decide to spend $21 billion, they are raised in private. And that's only if Senators are able to read the budget bill between the time it magically appears from the backrooms and gets to the floor for a vote.

Reporters and advocates rarely bring up the process either. It is now conventional wisdom, simply how things are done. Lobbyists never complain for fear of jeopardizing their access. Top lobbyists have input into the budget decisions and sometimes know more about the plan that rank and file Senators who are asked to vote on it.

This year's Senate budget has another troubling wrinkle, $500 million in unspecified tax increases. Good for the Senate for raising new revenue, but how can anybody vote for a plan to raise taxes without knowing what the taxes are?

Don't fret, Senate leaders say. The finance team is hard at work on the tax package. That would be the finance team also meeting behind closed doors. They will unveil the tax plan the same way the budget was unveiled, leaving some Senators scrambling to respond and others too intimated to complain.

One of the reporters who covers the General Assembly reported Wednesday that because Rand cut off debate, Thursday's budget vote would be "mercifully quick."  The Senate is deciding how to spent $21 billion, not ripping off a Band-Aid.

It is true that open budget debates can be long and ponderous, even excruciating for regulars at the Legislative Building. The House debate about the budget usually is.

But the budget isn't just for the folks who work at the General Assembly. It is for everybody in the state. There are plenty of troubling provisions in the Senate plan, deep cuts to public education and children's programs for starters. But there was no real opportunity to debate those reductions or any of the other recommendations.

The chance ended Wednesday, when the same people who put the budget together in a corner room cut off debate on the Senate floor, slamming the door shut on democracy one more time, eliciting from political insiders only a yawn.

About the author

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.