For those who pay only periodic attention to the ins and outs of lawmaking in the North Carolina General Assembly, there was a powerful reminder last week of just how broken things are and how cloistered and detached the conservative powers-that-be in the state Legislative Building have become after several years of unfettered rule.
It happened last Monday when Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger took to Twitter to proclaim and celebrate the fact that he and House Speaker Tim Moore had – 10 days prior to the commencement of the 2018 legislative session – reached agreement on the amount the state will spend in its Fiscal Year 2019 budget that starts July 1.
Berger tweeted: “#Breaking: strong revenue numbers enabled @NCHouseSpeaker and me to reach agreement on a $23.917 billion spending target for the FY 2018-19 budget.”
Think for a moment about Berger’s pronouncement and its implications: the most powerful man in the state legislature has chosen to inform his 10 million fellow North Carolinians via a Trump-like tweet that what is almost certainly the most important decision to be rendered by the 170 Senators and Representatives who represent them each year has, for 2018, already been made – behind closed doors.
This year’s legislative session may be about to get underway with its usual helpings of pomp, speechmaking, committee meetings, floor debate, press conferences, and, as it turns out, one of the most extraordinary public demonstrations in decades when as many as 20,000 school teachers descend on Raleigh on Wednesday, but as far as Berger and Moore are concerned, the most important decision has already been made based on secret negotiations between two men representing a relative handful of constituents In Rockingham and Cleveland counties.
The only thing almost as maddening as the utter lack of process and transparency in the Berger-Moore secret budget deal is the general lack of outrage it seems to have provoked in the mostly somnambulant and cynical cadre of legislators, reporters, lobbyists, legislative staff, agency officials and other assorted hangers-on who comprise the “in” legislative crowd.
“Great!” seems to be the common and troubling reaction one hears in and around downtown Raleigh. “Now we know the session will be a short one and we won’t have to worry about disrupted summer vacation plans!”
Pardon me for not celebrating what is, in fact, a travesty and an example of governance at its worst. While it is true that the budget bill that will be adopted during the upcoming short session technically constitutes only a series of “adjustments” to the two-year budget enacted last year, that doesn’t mean it’s not vitally important or that it won’t have significant impacts on every North Carolinian.
The Appropriations Act passed during the 2016 “short session” was 209 pages long and dealt with scores of important topics – all of which were impacted by the overarching decision that was ultimately made by lawmakers on how much to spend in the 2017 fiscal year. Our taxes, education systems, health care, environment, courts, prisons, highways – all of these and many, many more essential structures and services were impacted.
And so it will be this year. Even a decision by lawmakers not to make significant changes to existing plans is a critically important choice that deserves a full public airing and debate. What’s more, in 2018, there are myriad decisions of the past that deserve to be reviewed with a fine tooth comb.
Take the extant decision to slash state taxes yet again in the coming year. As the fiscal policy experts at the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center reported last month, the state will lose roughly $900 million in annual revenue from the scheduled reductions in the corporate and personal income tax rates. These are hugely regressive tax cuts that are wholly unnecessary and that will continue to abet the ongoing degradation of essential public services and structures in our state. They are also, in many important ways, the most obvious roadblock to restoring state education funding to pre-Great Recession levels – not to mention restoring funding for our struggling courts, prisons and environment protection efforts.
At a minimum, these cuts and related decisions to alter how we fund government deserve to be discussed in public and closely examined. This is especially true at this historic juncture in state policy history in which tens of thousands of the state’s most important public servants are coming to the state capital en masse to tell them to their faces that they are dead wrong.
Unfortunately, by every indication, this will not be the case. Not even the state’s popularly elected and extremely popular Governor will get any kind of say.
Instead, a couple of small town lawyers have cut a backroom deal and the die has been cast. Lord only knows what they’ll decide next without the benefit of public scrutiny or input. The rest of us will probably do best to watch our Twitter feeds.