During last Monday night’s brief Senate debate over a proposed change by Senator Brent Jackson to a package of constitutional amendments that would hamstring future legislatures and threaten public education funding, Senator Josh Stein asked what seemed like a reasonable question.
Could Senators have another day to consider the proposal since the main debate on the three amendments had already been rescheduled for the next day?
Senators were talking about changing the state constitution after all and the process used to introduce and pass the amendments out of committee hadn’t been exactly open and transparent. And no one had seen the change that Senator Jackson was proposing.
Senate Rules Chair and enforcer-in-chief Tom Apodaca bristled at the suggestion and said Stein would have overnight to “come up with reasons to vote against the amendments.”
Then Apodaca told the Senate the process to introduce the amendments and bring them to Senate floor was “more than fair.”
Every once in while a phrase uttered by a legislative leader stands out as a perfect summary of what is wrong with the General Assembly and Apodaca’s appallingly hypocritical claim of “more than fair” fits the bill, especially when you consider what’s at stake for North Carolina in the legislation he was defending.
It’s a package of three constitutional amendments. One would force the General Assembly to put two percent of the previous year’s budget into the state savings account every year that could not be accessed without approval of a supermajority vote of the House and Senate.
Another would slash personal income tax rates to five percent and forbid the General Assembly from every raising the personal or corporate income tax rates above that level.
And the third and most dangerous would be to limit state spending based on an arbitrary and flawed formula involving the inflation rate and population growth. That amendment is commonly referred to with the misleading name, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.
It’s a favorite gimmick used by anti-public investment groups to artificially limit state spending on education, health care, environmental protections, etc.
Several leading right-wing groups have been pushing TABOR for years with little success. Only Colorado has adopted it.
Thirty other states, including many controlled by conservative Republicans, have considered TABOR since 2004 and they have all rejected it with some of the defeats coming at the hands of the voters in a referendum.
There’s a reason for that. The TABOR experience in Colorado has been a disaster, with the state tumbling in national rankings in everything from education spending to child immunizations.
That might be something interesting for Senators and the public to hear in a committee meeting, testimony from experts on the amendment and people from Colorado who have lived with it since the early 1990s.
Senators could ask staff members questions. Supporters of the amendment could make their case and even the public could be heard. Imagine that.
But none of that will happen under Apodaca’s “more than fair” process.
Only Senators will be heard on the amendments that could literally prevent a significant raise for teachers for a decade. Economists on the legislative staff won’t get to speak or respond to outlandish claims with the facts.
The Senate will vote on amending the constitution to cut taxes, mandating savings no matter the need, and tying the hands of future legislatures forever when it comes to making public investments, after rushing the proposals through a Senate committee in half an hour, with no input from anyone outside the committee itself.
The potential damage to North Carolina from the package of amendments is hard to overstate. If TABOR was in effect this year, merely funding the increased education enrollment, the increased costs in Medicaid, and other inflationary adjustments would leave next to nothing for teacher raises or new investments in early childhood programs or any other pressing state priorities.
There’s a reason 30 states have rejected the arbitrary and restrictive TABOR amendment. Their leaders, including many top business men and women, realized the damage the proposal could do to their states and testified against it.
Business leaders and opponents of the plan didn’t have a chance to talk about that in a committee meeting of the North Carolina Senate.
That’s not more than fair. That’s dangerous and appalling. But that’s the way the Senate works these days, no matter how hard Sen. Apodaca and his colleagues try to claim otherwise.
Chris Fitzsimon is the founder and executive director of N.C. Policy Watch