The fun begins again on Jones Street

The fun begins again on Jones Street

- in Fitzsimon File

Here are a few things to keep in mind as the summer session of the General Assembly begins its short session at noon on Wednesday.

Pushing Perdue's plan aside

The state budget shortfall is at least $250 million greater than Governor Perdue addressed in the budget she presented to lawmakers last month.  Much of that difference comes from Perdue's proposal to send just $20 million to the state retirement system. State Treasurer Janet Cowell and legislative leaders believe that the system needs $180 million to be fully funded.

Several of Perdue's major budget recommendations appear to be dead on arrival, particularly in education. Lawmakers are not thrilled with her idea of spending almost $40 million on handheld diagnostic devices for students in the early grades or her plan to give teachers a small salary increase and pay state employees back for last year's furlough.

Perdue proposed slashing local education spending by another $135 million on top of last year's cuts to pay for the salary items. Legislative budget writers understandably don't think it's a good idea to give teachers a small raise while laying hundreds of teachers off.

Working like it is supposed to?

Senate leaders say they still plan to send budget to the House by May 20, just eight days after the session begins. That means two things. The Senate budget is basically done, written out of the sight of the media, the public, and even most Senators. And Senate leaders will apparently continue to offer up ridiculous claims about how the budget is put together.

The Elizabeth City Daily Advance reports that Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight says that "his job early in the budgeting process will be making sure the process works as it's supposed to," making sure that the subcommittees and the major committees do their work.

There have been a few open budget meetings already and there may be a few more, but none of that matters. The only committee that has much of anything to do with the Senate budget is the one meeting everyday behind closed doors in the Legislative Office Building. 

The budget process in the Senate remains more of an unveiling than a debate.  And despite Basnight claims otherwise, that's not the way it is supposed to work.

Don't plan a July vacation yet

House and Senate leaders say they plan to have a final budget passed before the June 30th end of the fiscal year and adjourn shortly after that. But folks who work at the legislative building shouldn't put a deposit down on a July vacation yet.

The General Assembly hasn't passed a budget before the end of the fiscal year since 2003 and there are already disagreements between House and Senate leaders. Representative Rick Glazier, the House Education Appropriations Chair, wants to use $100 million of lottery proceeds currently earmarked school construction to save teacher's jobs.

It seems like an idea worth pursuing, but Senate budget leaders all but ruled it out Tuesday. Mark that down as the first of many disagreements between the two chambers about a spending plan.

Do we really have to talk about ethics?

The biggest non-budget issue will be calls to strengthen the state's ethics and campaign finance laws to respond to the ongoing investigations into the activities of former Governor Mike Easley and his key staff and financial supporters.

Governor Perdue has presented a reform package that's a start, though significantly weaker than it should be and weaker than proposals that her own staff discussed internally earlier this year.  House leaders reportedly will present a package of their own, but getting meaningful reforms through the House is not the problem.

Senate leaders are the ones who have balked in the past and Basnight admits he hasn't thought much about reform, focusing instead on the budget.  It seems there is much greater urgency in the public for ethics reform than in the General Assembly.

The tax code is still out of date

In case you are wondering when the General Assembly will finally tackle an overhaul of the state's outdated revenue system that made the current budget crisis much worse than it should have been, it won't be this year.

The House and Senate Finance Committees have been meeting jointly since last year's session ended and heard compelling presentations about the need to expand the base of the state sales tax to include more services.

The new revenue would allow the overall sales tax rate to be lowered and the broader base would more closely align with the state's economic activity, making tax collections less volatile in economic downturns.

Lawmakers have heard all that before and several high-powered commissions have recommended the overhaul to no avail. Legislative leaders announced months ago that tax reform would not come up this session either. 

It never seems to be the right time to do the right thing when it comes to tax policy.

Partisan politics and tea parties

And finally, it looks like opposition to federal health care reform will play the role this session of the irrelevant, but divisive political issue designed to rally the right-wing base for the November election.

A collection of far-right tea party groups are planning a protest for Wednesday to demand a floor vote on legislation that would exempt North Carolina from the national health care reform law signed last month by President Obama. 

That might come as a surprise to millions of people in the state with a preexisting condition who will finally have access to insurance or to small businesses looking forward to the help providing coverage  to their employees that health care reform will bring.

But don't worry, it's not really about health care reform anyway. It's a desperate attempt to keep the anger fueled by distortions alive until November.

The session is here. Let the fun begin.

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.