The third full week of this new fiscal year starts with no apparent end in sight to the budget negotiations between House and Senate leaders. Budget writers were close to wrapping up talks about spending items and then Governor Mike Easley stepped in with his budget cap restriction, sending negotiators back to the drawing board looking for more than $100 million in budget cuts.
Easley did convince Senate leaders to drop their session-long insistence on cutting taxes on the wealthiest people in the state, but the concession left Senators scrambling for a way to save face publicly and they haven’t found it yet.
The latest set of talking points from the Senate PR machine sent out in individual Senators’ newsletters describes a compromise budget proposal put forward by the Senate that stresses education funding, tax cuts, and fiscal responsibility. The proposal funds education at the level in the original Senate budget, provides tax cuts in the second year of the two-year plan, and puts $300 million in the state’s savings account.
Nothing especially objectionable about any of those ideas but the Senate spin is significant for what it doesn’t say. If the two sides are planning to abide by Governor Easley’s arbitrary and unwise spending cap and the Senate insists on its position on funding for public schools, community colleges, and universities, that means budget cuts elsewhere, most likely human service programs.
The summary of the Senate compromise didn’t mention human services at all, raising concern that the Senate proposal to cut services to the aged, blind, and disabled is still on the table.
The Senate spin is also the latest reminder of the tone of the public policy debate these days with the carefully crafted public talking points that are poll-tested and consultant-approved. Talk about education, tax cuts, and fiscal discipline.
Forget about investments in people and programs that help them, like affordable housing, human services, and alternatives to prison that save money and lives. The consultants don’t think those issues sell very well, so they are a low priority in the Senate budget and nonexistent in the Senate talking points.
The news about the lottery is even more troubling if Rep. Jim Harrell is right. Harrell told a reporter recently that that lottery is not likely to be in the final budget agreement but the money raised by the lottery may be included.
That means the budget could pass and spend money that won’t exist unless lawmakers agree on a lottery bill after the budget is approved. That would be terrible public policy but smart politics, putting tremendous pressure on lottery opponents to support the lottery legislation after they have voted for a budget that spends lottery proceeds.
It would also further isolate the five Senate Democrats who philosophically oppose the lottery, but voted for the Senate budget and would presumably support the spending levels in the final budget agreement.
It is not an accident that the lottery is the focus of all sorts of legislative tricks and parliamentary maneuvering. It is the only way that House and Senate leaders can convince the majority of lawmakers to turn state government into a giant gambling enterprise.
But get used to it. If the General Assembly makes the disastrous decision to approve a state-run lottery, then it won’t just be rank and file lawmakers who will be the target of officially sanctioned deception. All the people of North Carolina will be mislead by their government. There’s something for the House and Senate talking points to brag about.