That’s the question North Carolinians should be asking our legislators concerning the budget they just passed. Lawmakers came to Raleigh in January with the primary task of setting a new two-year budget prior to the beginning of the state fiscal year July 1. Not only did they miss the date by about 75 days but their tardiness wasn’t due to a significant number of bold new initiatives.
So what took so long? To be sure they had to wait to get a final handle on how much money was available, even though they learned in March there would be a surplus of revenues over expenses in the current year. Their staff projected the April 15 tax returns would produce increased revenues to appropriate. By early May they had the numbers they needed and almost two months in which to get a budget agreed upon.
The real problem was and is egos. We’ve always had battles of egos disguised as philosophical differences between Democrats and Republicans and there is a built-in animosity between the House and Senate, but this year was primarily a war of personalities.
We take 170 people, most always honorable and reasonable people, send them to the legislature where lobbyists and special interests hang on their every word, surround them with a legislative staff that is overworked but submits to their whims, then give a handful of them extra powers in establishing who gets money, as well as where and when it gets spent. It’s understandable that they start thinking they possess special insights regular people don’t have and believe theirs is the right solution to most every issue. When my father served in the legislature back in the 1970s, my mom always said it took about 30 days after adjournment for him to recognize that not everything he said was important.
The increasing length of sessions and the continual late budget passage is further proof that our legislative system, especially the budget process, is broken and the only ones who can fix it are the very ones who don’t want it changed. Yes, there were some significant issues on the table and big differences between the House and Senate to be resolved, but there was nothing so complicated or difficult to have prevented our legislators from resolving them weeks earlier if they had put aside their egos, tuned out the special interests and gotten it done. They didn’t get really serious about resolving this budget until staring down the barrel of the third budget deadline, when public pressure reached a crescendo.
It shouldn’t have taken so long to agree upon a budget. Plenty of other states don’t have this perennial problem because they have prescribed session limits; they either get the budget passed or are forced to adjourn. Guess what? They always get the budget passed. Over the past twenty or so years our legislature has increasingly demonstrated (with the exception of 2011) less and less discipline in passing a budget prior to July 1. They have further demonstrated they are going to wait until the last minute to get their work done. Perhaps it is time North Carolina put some hard deadlines in place with finite session limits to impose that discipline. Can I get an Amen?
Tom Campbell is the executive producer and moderator of N.C. Spin.