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The secretly-negotiated 2018 budget: What’s in it? Why won’t legislative leaders allow real debate?

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[Editor’s note: The North Carolina General Assembly unveiled a proposed 2019 state budget bill earlier this week and expects to send it to Gov. Cooper tomorrow. As always, the proposal is chock-full of controversial appropriations decisions and substantive law changes spread over hundreds of pages.

What is highly unusual this year, however, is the way the budget is being adopted. In an unprecedented move, Republican legislative leaders are using the parliamentary maneuver of amending the proposal in-full into what’s known as a  “conference committee report” on another measure that has already passed both houses. The practical result of this trick is to prevent any amendments from being offered or debated on the bill. In other words, all 170 members of the General Assembly are being forced to vote “yes” or “no” on the entire budget with no prospect whatsoever of changing it — even if they spot an error in the bill or come up with a change that would pass unanimously. Not surprisingly, this heavy-handed move has sparked criticism and dissent from many corners.

Today, in order to help North Carolinians grasp the gravity of this decision to shut down debate and to help them to catch up with some of what is in the secretly-negotiated, unamendable bill, we’re happy to share excerpts from (and links to) to several budget takes and summaries from Policy Watch staffers and regular contributors. We hope you find it useful.]

Why are lawmakers so afraid to defend their policy choices?
By Alexandra Sirota

One would think that legislative leaders would be proud of yet another round of cutting taxes for the wealthiest and shortchanging everyone else. But if they are, why did they develop their budget in secret and why are they limiting opportunities for debate and amendments?

Maybe they don’t want North Carolinians to know that they chose to keep the tax rate cuts scheduled for 2019 that will mean $900 million less for communities across the state.

Or that they are putting us on a path that will mean revenues will not be able to maintain current services for the state’s population in future years.

Maybe they don’t want North Carolinians to know that the tax cuts aren’t growing our economy.

Or maybe they don’t want to have to engage with teachers and students who know their classrooms need state investments to ensure a sound, basic education.

Maybe they don’t want to have to hear from older North Carolinians who won’t be able to stay in their homes due to a lack of investment in home health care and meal delivery. Or from the families who are living on bottled water because their water is toxic.

Maybe they just don’t want to deal with parents who want their kids to be cared for at a high-quality child care while they work or the parents who can’t afford the rising tuition for their children’s education and training after high school.

Maybe they don’t want to discuss it.

But we should ask them: why prioritize tax cuts and hurt our state?

If I didn’t have a good answer, I wouldn’t want to have to answer these questions either.

Alexandra Sirota is the Director of the N.C. Budget and Tax Center

State budget: DEQ still snubbed, plus Jordan Lake rules delayed again and an odd line item for Charlotte
By Lisa Sorg

The state budget, having secretly curdled inside Republican bill writers for several weeks, was finally served to the public last night just before 9 p.m. At 748 pages long — including the conference report-– and weighing more than a pound, the financial blueprint for the next fiscal year spoils most hopes of  environmental protection for North Carolinians. [Read more… [2]]

Lawmakers’ budget prioritizes tax cuts over early childhood education
By Brian Kennedy

Last night, the North Carolina General Assembly released their budget determining how the state would be funded for the 2018-19 fiscal year. The $23.9 billion budget marks the 10th consecutive year that the state has declined as a share of the economy.

While North Carolina has gotten used to austerity budgets that prioritize tax cuts over critical investments, the process being used this year limits debate and prohibits changes even when significant errors are being made that will hurt communities.

One such error is the decision not to use federal funds to reach more children in North Carolina to with high quality early education. [Read more… [3]]

Legislature’s education budget highlights continued under-investment in public schools
By Kris Nordstrom

The General Assembly has been catching much-deserved criticism for refusing to subject its budget plan to the normal amendment process. That decision is undemocratic and self-defeating, undoubtedly leading to lower-quality policies and unintended negative consequences. But lawmakers deserve to be commended for completing its budget in a timely fashion, providing school districts additional budget planning time to prepare for the upcoming school year. [Read more… [4]]

Budget bill’s appropriation to religious group appears to violate First Amendment
By Rob Schofield

The question of whether public appropriations to religious groups in order for those groups to perform public functions is a complex one. There is a strong argument to be made that it’s simply wrong and unconstitutional for public dollars to flow to sectarian institutions for any purpose given the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

As the Constitution has come to be interpreted in recent decades by a conservative Supreme Court, however, the First Amendment does not serve as a complete bar to appropriations to religious groups to serve public purposes so long as the public money is not directed toward “religious uses.”

Even that arguably inadequate standard appears, however, to have been breached in the state budget bill unveiled this week by Republican leaders in the General Assembly. [Read more… [5]]

It’s official: Legislature’s new budget marks TEN consecutive years of declining state investments
By Luis Toledo

The legislature has released a $23.9 billion budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year that fails to invest adequately in our schools, communities and people. Under the budget, total state spending for FY2019 remains below 2008 pre-recession spending as the proposed budget marks ten consecutive years that state spending has declined as a share of the state’s economy. The budget for FY2019 – which runs from July 2018 to June 2019 – increases spending by 3.8 percent over the prior fiscal year, but this modest increase does not make up for years of under-investment in North Carolina. [Read more… [6]]

“Pork” proliferates in the 2018-19 budget
By Patrick McHugh

We saw once again this week that backrooms and private meetings are the native habitat of that never-endangered species, political pork. When legislative leaders pulled the curtain back to reveal their 2018-19 budget, it became quickly apparent that deviating from the traditional budget-writing process gave political pork room to grow and proliferate. To be clear, many of these line-items go to reasonable and valuable projects, but the unusually opaque process should give everyone heartburn. [Read more… [7]]

Budget could make it harder for communities to revitalize
By Will Munn

Buried in the minutiae of the budget, is language that could cut some communities off from the funds they need to revitalize. The provision in question would force some struggling communities to come up with their own funds if they hope to secure federal grants for community redevelopment. Many of the communities are already on the economic knife-edge, and would likely lose out on needed funds if the provision passes. [Read more… [8]]

Without coming right out and saying it, proposed budget could kill light rail in North Carolina
By Patrick McHugh

A single sentence buried on page 179 of the budget bill could effectively kill light rail in North Carolina by creating a kind of Catch-22 for transportation officials.

The seemly innocuous passage reads: “A light rail project is ineligible for scoring, prioritization, and State funding until a written agreement is provided to the Department establishing that all non-State funding necessary to construct the project has been secured.”

While this may not seem so bad on the surface of things, these few words could make it practically impossible to build light rail systems to serve North Carolina’s booming metropolitan areas. [Read more… [9]]

A rushed, closed door budget process doesn’t align with NC values, can’t effectively identify NC priorities
By Luis Toledo

North Carolina’s legislative leaders will not be in Raleigh for too long during this year’s short session. Over the past few weeks, behind closed doors, legislative leaders in the House and Senate have been putting together their budget and plan to move it through this week through a process that will allow for no input from the public or amendments from members. [Read more… [10]]