A early look at this year’s budget lessons

A early look at this year’s budget lessons

- in Fitzsimon File

It will be at least another week before the state has a budget in place for the fiscal year that began two weeks ago. State lawmakers adjourned for the weekend Thursday without an agreement and House and Senate negotiators didn't seem eager to talk much over the weekend.

At some point, the state will have a budget. It may be next week or next month, but leaders of the House and Senate lawmaker will ultimately agree on how to raise $900 million and what services to cut to address the $4.6 billion shortfall.

The delay and the continuing resolution passed this week to extend the budget deadline has prompted the usual criticism of lawmakers and laments about what's described as a lack of leadership  or discipline or even commitment.

That's far too broad of a brush. The failure of lawmakers of both parties and Governor Beverly Perdue this session is not so much that they missed the budget deadline, it's about what they have or haven't done leading up to the beginning of the fiscal year.

Legislative Democrats in both the House and the Senate deserve credit for recognizing the insanity of proposals to balance the budget with cuts alone and have responsibly agreed to raise almost a billion dollars in new revenue to avoid some of the worst cuts.

But they have not done themselves any favors with the way they have approached the task.  Asking people to pay more taxes without carefully explaining why is a recipe for trouble.

The Senate rushed its budget to the House before the April revenue figures increased the size of the projected budget hole by $2 billion.  The Senate budget called for $500 million in new revenue without specifying how it should be raised, but that wasn't the biggest problem.

The Senate put its budget together almost entirely behind closed doors, providing no opportunity to explain to the public why new revenue was needed and what would happen to education and human services if it wasn't raised.

The House budget process was significantly more open, but it came a few months after House leaders said repeatedly that they did not believe a tax increase was necessary to balance the budget, staking themselves out before there was any chance to make the public case for new revenue.

The House prepared a budget that included no new money, setting off understandable alarm among educators and human service advocates.  But advocates aren't the only people who need to understand.

The voters do too and the legislative game of budget chicken was probably not the best way to explain it to them.

The House did hold a statewide public hearing one evening during the budget process,  a good idea but not enough.

Neither House nor Senate leaders hit the speaking circuit very often, missing important chances to talk to Rotary Clubs and civic groups across the state about why the budget shouldn't be balanced only by slashing state government.

That's where Governor Beverly Perdue comes in, or should have. Perdue also deserves credit for pushing for more revenue, more than either the House or Senate proposed. But until a handful of education rallies held late in the process, she also neglected to make the case about specific programs in danger if lawmakers refused to raise taxes and focus attention on the people whose lives would be directly affected by the cuts.

Legislative Republicans primary budget activity this session has been to criticize the Democrats for the cuts they considered and then the revenue increases proposed to avoid them.

That is the luxury allowed to the minority party, and the tiresome no new tax rhetoric was often supported by fudged numbers, misleading claims, and flawed assumptions, like that the state has a spending problem.

It doesn't. North Carolina ranks 33rd in spending per capita, better than South Carolina, the state conservative lawmakers and think tanks like to hold up as an example.  Spending per person is roughly the same level in our as it was almost ten years ago.

Democratic legislative leaders and Governor Perdue seemed almost stuck in the mud much of the session on what to do about the budget, most likely because they were weighing the advice of their pollsters to avoid any tax increases against what they knew was the best thing for the state, balancing the budget with a combination of budget cuts and new revenue.

Their final decision was the right one, though their vacillating cost them a chance to explain to voters why taxes were necessary, mostly leaving the rhetorical arena to the Republicans and the anti-government zealots with their simple,  misleading, and often factually incorrect soundbites.

That's one undeniable lesson of this session, regardless of what's in the final budget agreement.

It's better do the right thing openly, making the case for it along the way, instead of haltingly backing into it and then scrambling to defend it.