Wouldn’t it be nice if our state elected officials worked together amicably to craft a biennial budget? One with the primary purpose of meeting needs instead of furthering political agendas? One passed in time to begin the new fiscal budget year?
For a while, in January, it looked as if that might happen. The governor, House speaker and Senate leader were making nice about cooperating, but that didn’t last long. Gov. Roy Cooper presented his budget proposals and they immediately started to collect dust on legislative shelves. It was evident the three couldn’t even agree on a target amount of spending the first year. Cooper wanted $26.6 billion. The House advocated for $26.4 and the Senate $25.5 billion.
With a July 1 start of the new fiscal year staring them in the face the Senate finally presented a $25.7 billion budget June 21. The House indicated it would be mid-July before they put theirs forward. The final product will be north of $26 billion, if history is any indicator.
We could go into detail discussing the pros and cons of the Senate budget, but it’s not worth the effort. If their proposal (or anything similar to it) ends up passing, it will be dead on arrival on Cooper’s desk. He will veto for several reasons, but perhaps the biggest is the special provisions contained in the document.
By their very nature special provisions are not actual spending proposals. They are items lawmakers want to become law but don’t have enough votes to pass through the regular legislative process. Three of these provisions slipped into the budget are thinly veiled attacks against Democrats.
The first would limit future governors from declaring a state of emergency lasting more than 10 days. To extend it 45 more days would require approval from the Council of State; additional extensions must be approved by the legislature. Most emergencies, like weather-related events, are short-lived, but when people are suffering or in danger, we don’t need partisan political debates and committee decisions. Republicans didn’t like when Cooper shut down businesses and was slow to reopen them during the pandemic. His decisions are largely affirmed. Our state reacted better than many during the pandemic and our economy has rebounded well.
The second is aimed at Democrat Attorney General Josh Stein. It would require the attorney general to obtain approval from the Council of State before getting involved in litigation within out-of-state or federal courts in which the state isn’t already specifically named. The AG could not agree to legal settlements involving constitutional challenges of state law without the approval of the Senate leader and House speaker. The legislature was miffed because Stein approved the settlement of a lawsuit that allowed the deadline for receipt of absentee ballots to be extended to nine days after Election Day. He had also joined other states in challenging decisions made in areas like the Endangered Species Act, DACA and the U.S. Postal Service. Legislators say these are political lawsuits and the attorney general should not be involved without their approval.
The third provision takes aim at the Democratically controlled State Board of Elections (SBOE). It would remove the organization’s investigative authority and transfer it to the State Bureau of Investigation, an agency already overloaded with work. The board has three members from the party of the sitting governor and two from the opposing party. Republican leadership was angered when the board voted unanimously last year to accept a settlement agreement that would allow November’s elections to go forward. The SBOE would have no power to agree to court settlements when the legislature is not in session.
Not only will these power grabs be quickly vetoed but they are likely unconstitutional and shortsighted. Republican leadership is failing to acknowledge that the pandemic was a once-in-a-century disaster. It also is ignoring the reality that sooner or later the political shoe will be on the other foot.
It will be interesting to see how the House budget compares and contrasts with the Senate. The larger question is whether Cooper’s veto will stick, as it has in recent years. We will watch with fascination whether the four Democrats who voted for the Senate budget will fold under extreme pressure and vote along party lines or vote to override the veto. Time will tell whether we are still in a time warp or can approve the first state budget since 2017.
For now, at least, state government is becoming as partisan and ineffective as our federal government.
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina broadcaster and columnist who has covered state public policy issues since 1965.