It’s crunch time in Raleigh. The end of the state fiscal year is just 12 days away and Republican legislative leaders have been secreted away, putting the final touches on a state budget bill that they will likely deign to share with Democratic members and the public sometime in this week.
As is always the case, the arrival of this moment is spurring all manner of fretting, speculation and bluster from people in and around the state policy world. Backbench lawmakers and lobbyists are worrying about their hoped-for appropriations and “special provisions.” Members of the news media are preparing to plunge into the hundreds of pages of proposed law in search of controversial nuggets.
Meanwhile, the main players – the Governor, the Senate President Pro Tem and House Speaker and the staff and partisan apparatuses that surround them – are preparing to do battle over the highest profile issues (education spending, taxes, Medicaid expansion, teacher and state employee pay) and the public narrative that will emerge.
For Governor Cooper and the Democrats, this is an especially important and challenging moment. After nearly a decade of playing North Carolina’s annual high stakes political poker game with the equivalent of a pair of deuces vs. opponents bearing flushes and full houses, things are suddenly different for Democrats. They still come to the contest as decided underdogs, but the demise of GOP legislative supermajorities, in tandem with the recent confirmation that a gubernatorial veto is a real and viable ace-in-the-hole, give them a path to success.
So, what now? How should Democratic politicians and their progressive allies approach the coming contest? A moment’s reflection points to two main strategic priorities.
First, is to make a genuine effort at compromise and negotiation. This is actually how government is supposed to work when different political parties share power and it has worked this way in North Carolina in the past.
What ought to happen is that sometime prior to June 30, Governor Cooper, Senate President Pro Tem Berger, Speaker Moore, Senate Minority Leader Blue and House Minority Leader Jackson should get together in a conference room with their key staffers and iron out a deal.
This is clearly the kind of solution that the overwhelming majority of North Carolinians would love to see. Each side could fully air their key demands and make clear the issues on which they can and cannot budge. With a little luck and political horse trading, the five leaders could emerge to stand and shake hands before the TV lights and reporter IPads and microphones on June 28 or 29 and then set the wheels in motion for approval of a final deal in time for the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.
Democrats should do everything within their power to bring about such a scenario.
The only problem with such a scheme, of course, is that it takes two to tango and, thus far, Republican leaders have given zero indication that they’re willing to compromise or even to seriously engage with Democrats. The budget proposals advanced to this point by both the House and the Senate are, by most important measures, even more draconian than the austerity budgets of past years. Indeed, the Senate version would cause overall state investments to plunge to a 45 year low. Senator Berger, in particular, refuses to discuss even a dramatically watered down version of Medicaid expansion – Gov. Cooper’s Number One priority.
This stubborn – some would say pig-headed – resistance to seeking common ground leads to the second obvious course for Democrats: to fight like heck. If Berger and conservative hardliners won’t meet Democrats somewhere close to halfway – by agreeing to at least a partial Medicaid expansion, a freeze on further tax cuts for corporations and the rich, significant additional funding for education and the environment and the removal of some of the most controversial special budget provisions – then Cooper and the Democrats should prepare for a siege.
The fact of the matter is that public opinion is with Cooper and crew and against Berger. North Carolinians want to close the health insurance coverage gap, end the starvation diet that our schools have been forced to endure and to get serious about preserving and repairing an environment in crisis. If Republicans won’t make any meaningful concessions in these three key areas, then it’s time to let the 2020 election campaign begin.
Such a tough stance won’t be easy to stick to – especially with Berger and Moore continuing to dangle more shiny trinkets in front of the handful of pliable Democratic lawmakers who care more about pork barrel projects and personal political objectives than the state as a whole.
But given the destructive impact of recent past budgets, the current overwhelming need, and the state of public opinion, it’s certainly worth a try.