The vindictiveness of the Senate’s bully budget

One of the most telling moments in the consideration of the Senate budget this week came toward the end of Wednesday’s floor debate when powerful Senate Rules Chair and Republican enforcer Tom Apodaca amended the bill to take $3 million away from the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law and give it to a health education center in his area.

Apodaca didn’t fully explain why he was taking money away from the law school or why he didn’t make the change in the weeks of secret meetings Senate leaders held to put the budget together.

Democratic Senator Mike Woodard suggested it was retaliation for the pointed criticism of Senate leaders by Gene Nichol, a professor at the school and until recently the head of poverty center there that the conservative UNC Board of Governors recently eliminated.

A right-wing website applauded the move and pointed out the law school had recently hired a new dean who had contributed money to national Democratic politicians.

Apodaca and fellow Republicans offered mostly snide comments about lawyers to defend the shift of money but the implication was hard to miss.

Senate leaders are willing to damage important state institutions and hurt the people of North Carolina who rely on them if they don’t like the political views of the institutions’ leaders. It’s a remarkable concept.

The Senate budget spends $21.4 billion and puts several hundred million dollars in various savings accounts. If the second most powerful member of the Senate wanted $3 million more for a local health education center, there are hundreds of places to find it without reducing funding for the law school.

Senator Jeff Jackson called the move “piñata politics” which is a compelling image but doesn’t quite tell the story.

Petty vindictive politics is more like it and it’s sprinkled throughout the Senate budget, mixed in with a strong dose of hard right ideology that appears to have influenced other indefensible decisions.

The Senate budget abolishes funding for the Hunt Institute for Education Leadership and Policy, a mainstream education policy think tank that works closely with governors and other elected officials on education initiatives. Many of the ideas that have come out of institute have been endorsed by conservative politicians and policy advocates.

But it was founded by former Governor Jim Hunt, a Democrat who has been active in recent political campaigns. Never mind the ideas, Senate leaders have to punish everybody involved because they don’t like the name on the institute’s door.

The Senate budget also ends funding for the Human Relations Commission that among things conducts fair housing complaints about discrimination that violates state and federal law.

It’s not clear who will conduct the commission’s share of investigations now but that doesn’t seem to matter much to Senate leaders. Human relations is considered by the ideologues a liberal term of course and the commission has long been on a list of targets for elimination created by the right-wing think tanks in Raleigh.

So has the Office of Minority Health that the budget also abolishes.

The budget also includes a provision to study the consolidation of Smart Start, NC PreK, and the child subsidy program.

Never mind that Smart Start and NC PreK are working well and helping children despite recent budget cuts, or that they serve different purposes. They were created by Democratic governors and we can’t have that. Better to punish families than keep programs associated with Democrats in place.

Senate leaders also made a point to bully fellow Republicans who step out line and dare to criticize the General Assembly.

The budget eliminates the Communications Director at the Department of Commerce and one of two executive assistants to Sec. John Skvarla , who recently blasted lawmakers for failing to approve business inventive programs to help recruit new companies to the state.

That ought to teach him.

There are plenty of misguided big decisions in the Senate budget that will do real damage to the state, from unaffordable tax cuts to dangerous Medicaid reform.

But this Senate budget does long-lasting damage to the political process in the state too, basing decisions on petty, vindictive politics even if it hurts the people the Senators are supposed to be representing.

It’s not only a vastly inadequate budget with the wrong priorities; it’s a bully’s budget.

The UNC-CH law school desperately needs a new building and the money Apodaca redirected at the last minute was being saved to help pay for it.

Maybe he can explain to the students there now or the ones considering applying and wondering about the dilapidated building that it wasn’t replaced because a professor said some things he didn’t like.

That apparently is the way our leaders make decisions now that affect almost 10 million people.

Chris Fitzsimon is the founder and executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.

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