The case of the vanishing budget: How N.C.’s secretive budget “process” is bad for the public good

The case of the vanishing budget: How N.C.’s secretive budget “process” is bad for the public good

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If, in this precise moment, you’re wondering where North Carolina’s multi-billion dollar budget is, the same one that sets crucial policy and spending parameters for state agencies, that dictates classroom funding levels for 1.5 million schoolchildren, that sets pay levels for thousands of state employees, retirees and teachers, it’s in the same place it’s always been.

Not, I fear, in a public space – a mic’d up committee room or in a clerk’s trusty hands – it exists, without hyperbole, mostly in Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s brain.

And, to a lesser extent, in the care of the most powerful lawmakers atop a GOP-dominated House and Senate conference committee, a committee that, as of this moment, has yet to schedule a single public meeting, or a single hearing to listen to the public, in all its wild, untamed glory.

It’s a committee composed, as it were, of Republicans one and all, if you exclude the pair of Democrats selected, perhaps, because at points along the way, they voted for the GOP’s budget in the first place.

None of this is particularly novel or intriguing for North Carolina politics.

Two years ago, Democrats didn’t see copies of a budget plan hundreds of pages long until moments before Republicans demanded a vote in appropriations committees. And last year, GOP leaders took the unprecedented step of drafting and approving their budget in a conference report attached to an already existing bill, a parliamentary maneuver that proscribed even the consideration of amendments. Democrats – defanged and delegitimized – could only vote up or down on the multi-billion dollar budget.

Perhaps that explains the silence in Raleigh today, that our most trusted political columnists and journalists aren’t particularly surprised or enflamed or compelled to comment upon the budget vacuum, so accustomed are we to the skullduggery. Ours is a calloused sensibility. We are a horse, humbly broken in to our riders.

But to call this a “process” is either insidiously generous, dimwitted, or both.

The committee has its share of decent and fair members, but its work is pure Skull and Bones Society. It’s a sub rosa crew that will draft, argue, horse-trade, cajole, winnow, and, eventually, deliver an all-but-finished budget to the full House and Senate in the coming days, without the niceties of air, sunlight or water. One imagines lawmakers drawing a vial of blood to gain access to this crepuscular affair. Indeed, turn off the lights, utter Berger’s name 13 times into a mirror, and you may, for a fleeting moment, spy a spectral apparition of the committee’s members, crafting your budget by candlelight.

Public service and public budgeting – despite what you may have heard – ought not to be a place for intrigue. That’s the sort of process that delivers back-door “slush funds” aimed at buying off critics with cheap favors and petty budget cuts, rocketed at political enemies with the temerity to disagree.

This plan affects you and yours as much as any business this public body will take up in 2019. It will set your tax levels and your service levels, and it will determine for hundreds of thousands of low-income North Carolinians whether they have a scrap of a chance of obtaining health insurance this year.

Yet it is not being discussed with you in this moment because legislative leaders take your spending plan for a deck of cards, one they’ll shuffle and reveal to you at their leisure. Republicans are playing a game of “Go Fish” with minority party Democrats and Gov. Roy Cooper, who has the power to veto the scurrilous thing and maybe, unlike years past, the votes in both chambers to sustain it.

That may not hold, and even now, it’s fair to wonder whether Democrats can sustain the will – or is it the nerve? – to obtain Cooper’s greatest prize in these negotiations: Medicaid expansion.

But, however, whenever, this toilsome process ends, be it next week or deep into summer’s humid doldrums, we should acknowledge the perilous place that we find ourselves as a democracy and a state. We’re a state with a diversity of opinions and life experiences, races, sexual orientations, religions and creeds, but we’re a state that’s nonetheless governed – and yes, budgeted – at the most conservative fringes of the Republican Party.

And when one party, whatever the party, wields such unfettered power, the minority party may feel scourged and humiliated, but it’s the public – a nebulous, flighty, and, increasingly, witheringly skeptical public – that is wounded far more. A public that cannot consent to a thing it’s never seen.

Never has it once benefited a public plan if it’s crafted exclusively in private. Never has a plan improved without the “nuisance” of an invested public. Never has a politician been more honest, transparent, or benevolent when allowed to roam unchecked. Indeed, whether they’re the beneficiary of a virtually “election-proof” gerrymander or an anemic minority party or an apathetic public, never has the public good been served by an unbothered public servant.

Be sure that, when this plan is released, we will find the type of tightfisted budgeting we’ve grown accustomed to, but we will also find cuts and policy reforms and pork projects delivered without any portent. We will unearth them moments before lawmakers hold a vote. And, worse yet, we’ll find countless more surprises in the days after its passage.

That’s how it has been in North Carolina. That’s how it is. But that’s not, to be sure, how it has to be.