Budget gridlock: Part of the right’s strategy for undermining state government

Budget gridlock: Part of the right’s strategy for undermining state government

- in Top Story, Weekly Briefing
State Rep. John Faircloth (L) and Senate President Phil Berger (R)

There was a fascinating exchange regarding North Carolina’s ongoing budget stalemate last week at a community meeting in High Point between State Rep. John Faircloth – a conservative Republican and co-chair of the House Appropriations Committee – and one of his constituents. The subject of the Q&A was Senate leader Phil Berger – the individual who is widely recognized to be the driving force in the GOP’s ongoing refusal to enter into negotiations with Gov. Roy Cooper and legislative Democrats.

Constituent: Do you members of the House have any clout with Phil Berger? [Laughter in the room] As you said, we are adults, let’s sit down and talk. Because it appears to me that Phil Berger is not willing to sit down and talk unless he can have his way.

Faircloth: He’s…uh…he’s been invited to a lot of discussions.

Constituent: Why should we give in to Phil Berger? Because he’s acting like a spoiled child.

Faircloth: He chooses that style and he’s the head of the Senate.

It was a remarkable and damning admission by Faircloth. After all, it’s not often that a soft-spoken nine-year veteran of the General Assembly who helps chair one of the House’s most important committees assents in public to the observation that his fellow Triad-area Republican is behaving like a “spoiled child.”

Of course, with Berger, it would be hard for anyone other than his most loyal partisans to reach any other conclusion. The Senate President Pro Tem – a man once widely viewed as a mostly reasonable small town burgher – has transformed himself over the last several years into an angry right-wing warrior in the Donald Trump-Rush Limbaugh-Franklin Graham mold.

On issue after issue – including some on which he once took an opposite stance – Berger usually comes out these days throwing wild, often personal, haymakers at his opponents (and perceived opponents).

The ongoing state budget impasse is a classic example. Gov. Cooper is not treated as a partner in governance or even as an adversary with whom to battle and ultimately find common ground; he is the enemy – a party to be blasted, berated and overridden.

Interestingly, however, and notwithstanding the “spoiled child” allusion at last week’s town hall, there may be method to Berger’s madness. While low energy observers in the mainstream news media would have you believe that the budget impasse is exclusively a function of a dispute over Medicaid expansion, the truth is that there are dozens of important ways in which the budget passed by the General Assembly and vetoed by the Governor comes up short of meeting the state’s basic needs.

What’s more, by refusing to negotiate and thereby allowing a drastically watered-down version of last year’s budget to continue running – a stopgap scenario set in place by GOP leaders a few years ago to prevent government from shutting down altogether – Berger is effecting numerous additional program cuts that abet the far right’s ultimate mission of eviscerating and privatizing essential public structures and services (what right-wing blowhard Grover Norquist once so disturbingly described as shrinking government “to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub”).

As Alexandra Sirota of the N.C. Budget & Tax Center persuasively explained last week at a Policy Watch Crucial Conversation luncheon (click here to explore Sirota’s slide presentation and here to see a video of the event), the strategy is, quite regrettably, poised to work. Among the likely near-term developments:

  • State employees and teachers will be denied promised salary step increases, vacant positions won’t be filled, keeping fewer people serving a growing state population, and increased contributions to the state employee retirement will not happen.
  • Neither schools nor the Medicaid system will receive funding for enrollment growth.
  • All projects and programs that had been funded with one-time money will no longer receive funding. This, she notes, will end several initiatives such as grants for school safety, investments in the community college system and funding for water infrastructure projects and water monitoring that had received continued funding under both the Governor’s and the legislature’s budget proposals.
  • Federal funding for any number of essential services could be compromised.

Perhaps even more important and worrisome, Sirota notes, the decision to rely on stopgap budgeting invites all manner of potentially destructive mischief. As we’ve seen repeatedly in Washington, when the budget process breaks down, the decisions that do get made tend to come about via flawed, ad hoc procedures that are often beholden to special interests and a small and unrepresentative group of lawmakers.

In other words, it’s precisely the kind of scenario that suits conservative ideologues like Mitch McConnell and Phil Berger.

The bottom line: Berger’s bullying, take-the-ball-home-and-sulk approach to negotiating a budget deserves to be condemned, but so too, do any crocodile tears that he and his allies shed now or in the future over the impact of the impasse. The damage that will occur is all part of their plan.