On Special Provisions in the State Budget

A Policy Statement Adopted by the House of Delegates, North Carolina Council of Churches,
October 28, 1998

Recent years have seen a proliferation of “special provisions” in the state budget. While special provisions are not new, their increased use to bypass parts of the legislative process and to weaken the voice of the people is troubling.

Special provisions are items included in the state budget that go beyond the mere allocation of state money. Some special provisions are clearly relevant and appropriate in the budget (example: a requirement that certain independent groups receiving state money report back to the General Assembly on how they spend it or a requirement that part of an appropriation be spent in a specific way). Other special provisions have only minimal relationship to the budget (example: increasing the penalties for drug crimes). And some special provisions have no discernible connection to the budget (example: extending alcohol sales to racetracks and surrounding areas without holding a local election). Finally, some special provisions are clearly related to how the state spends its money but are so important or so complicated that they need to stand on their own (example: welfare reform).

The inclusion of special provisions is nothing new, and both houses and both parties do it. Last year’s Senate budget, for example, incorporated the provisions of separate bills regarding habitual drunk drivers, gang crimes, and the creation of the Health Care Oversight Commission. But the use of special provisions seemed to be elevated to a political art form last year when the House of Representatives grafted the entire welfare reform package onto its version of the budget.

This year’s House and Senate budget bills include a host of special provisions. Among them are:

  • unifying juvenile justice functions and assigning the unified office to the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety.
  • making extensive changes in the state’s charter school laws.
  • altering the Smart Start system.
  • increasing staffing requirements for adult care homes.
  • developing a state plan to ensure that people with developmental disabilities get needed services more quickly.
  • studying the effectiveness and cost-efficiency of the public defender program.
  • increasing punishments for crimes, including cruelty to animals.
  • ending the use of the gas chamber and requiring future executions to be by lethal injection.
  • changing welfare reform, including reneging on last year’s compromise regarding so-called electing counties and changing the purpose of Work First to include fostering long-term self-sufficiency.
  • developing a prescription drug program for low-income elderly and disabled people who are not eligible for Medicaid.
  • transferring state government offices from one department to another.

Clearly, some of these provisions are good proposals, worthy of consideration and passage. The problem with special provisions is that many of them (including most, if not all, of the ones just listed) should be dealt with as separate bills. As such, they would have to be approved by the appropriate committees in both houses (judiciary committees considering increased criminal penalties, for example), debated on their own merits, and approved by both Houses, again standing on their own merits. What often happens with a special provision is that it is added by budget writers with little or no committee discussion, never considered by the committees with expertise in that area, and then debated (if at all) as one small piece of a multi-billion-dollar, multi-hundred-page budget bill. If floor debate on the budget is brief, some special provisions may be passed which the public, or even some legislators, may not be aware of. When the two houses pass different versions of the budget and send them to a conference committee, the special provisions become special bargaining chips and further slow down the process of reaching compromise.

The reasons special provisions are so popular with some legislators should be clear. Matters which might not survive on their own slide through in the budget. It takes less time and trouble to insert a special provision than to persuade two or more substantive committees and both houses to pass a freestanding bill. And, since the budget bill is eventually going to pass in some form, the various techniques for delaying or killing a freestanding bill (including the new gubernatorial veto) don’t work if your bill has become a special provision.

We are troubled by the proliferation of special provisions. Their too-frequent use robs the state’s citizens of the input and influence which they should be able to have on important matters of state governance. Their use further concentrates legislative power in too few hands. Their use prolongs already lengthy sessions and trivializes critical state issues.

Therefore, we call on the 1999 General Assembly to reduce the use of special provisions in the budget by a public agreement between House and Senate leaders, including budget leaders, regarding when their use would be appropriate or by writing the House and Senate Rules in a way that would limit their use or in any other effective manner. This agreement, however expressed, should prohibit the use of special provisions which have little or no relationship to the spending of the state’s money or which are so significant or complex as to warrant separate consideration as a freestanding bill.

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