North Carolina has two legislative bodies, the 120-member House of Representatives and the 50-member Senate. They’re set up to be equal in power, although it could be said that the larger House is designed to be more reflective of the public will.
Senators typically have more room to operate. And operating in a smaller group, it’s easier for certain senators to gain power through political smarts, force of character or mastery of the issues.
Perhaps that helps explain why, during these past couple of years of Republican dominance in both the Senate and House, it’s the Senate that has been more aggressive and generally more successful in setting the legislative agenda – and a very conservative agenda it has been.
Here toward the shank end of August, look no further than how the two chambers are maneuvering to resolve markedly different visions of what the new state budget should look like. This is the annual budget that was supposed to take effect July 1.
First, there’s the question of an overall spending level – with many ramifications for different state programs, education especially.
The budget bill approved by the House in May called for outlays of $22.155 billion, up 5 percent from the previous fiscal year. The thinking was that with the state’s economy finally on the rebound from the recession, and with tax revenues running ahead of forecasts, it was time to put some money into areas that have been put through a painful squeeze.
The Senate treated the House spending plan almost as if it had been put together by a bunch of liberals.
Hard to swallow
The Senate’s version of House Bill 97 cut the proposed spending increase from 5 percent to 2 percent – a $685 million hit. Now, a deal announced on Aug. 18 would target the increase at 3.1 percent, for a total of $21.735 billion.
That’s slightly ahead of the 2.7 percent needed simply to keep pace with population growth and inflation. But clearly, the Senate – with Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s blessing – got the better of the argument. The House will have to swallow cuts amounting to about $420 million.
Now the budget talks will focus on coming up with final spending numbers for different departments and programs. In that sense, the deal setting an overall spending target leaves plenty of work undone and tough decisions yet to be made. The House’s proposed 2 percent raises for state employees, for instance, look to be in jeopardy.
Perhaps something less than 2 percent can be salvaged, or perhaps the Senate’s notion of linking raises to hard-to-fill positions will prevail. But that could be small comfort for folks who have seen their pay stagnate ever since the recession forced a spending crackdown and since Republican legislators made tax-cutting a top priority.
It’s hard to field a competent, motivated, public-spirited workforce when too many state employees feel that their needs are being sacrificed by legislators who can barely hide their contempt for what those employees do. As the budget negotiations play out, it would be nice to see Gov. McCrory, as chief executive, stand up for people who look to him to be their advocate.
Another House goal has been to keep some 5,000 teacher assistants on duty in elementary school classrooms, where they provide all manner of support to regular teachers in the early grades who can use all the help they can get. And of course, when teachers are harried and stretched too thin, students pay the price.
The Senate wants to go a different route. It would take the money saved by laying off the assistants and use it to hire about 2,000 more teachers, with the goal of reducing class sizes.
For example, the maximum size of a class in grades 1 through 3 would be 22 students during the upcoming school year, and 18 students during 2016-17. A school district’s allowable maximum average class size for those grades would go from 19 students to 15.
Reducing the number of students for which a teacher is responsible seems to be a worthy goal. Yet, the Senate plan, by eliminating assistants, may offer little or no actual relief to teachers in exchange for giving them fewer students. They’ll lose valuable back-up for many of their duties.
At the same time, school districts would face the need to furnish more classrooms. With money for buildings, even mobile classrooms, hard to come by, the move to smaller classes shapes up as an unfunded mandate. Isn’t that supposed to be a conservative no-no?
The teacher assistant disagreement is just one of many that will have to be settled before the budget can be nailed down. With the process close to two months behind schedule, state government is being funded via temporary spending resolutions, the current one set to expire Aug. 31.
Absent a budget settlement, school districts don’t know how much money they’ll have to work with, meaning they aren’t able to finalize their own hiring decisions. Will some systems have to begin the year short of qualified teachers? If so, it was the Senate that set the stage for chaos by pushing a budget not only quite a bit smaller than the House’s but loaded with policy measures that the House couldn’t abide.
Weeks went by as House leaders probed that 508-page document and sought to connect the dots between spending proposals and policy changes, including costly tax cuts, expansion of the sales tax to cover vehicle repairs, a shift of sales tax distribution to benefit rural counties at the expense of urban ones, and a complex and fiercely contested overhaul of the Medicaid program.
The Senate in essence was trying to force the House to accept this menu of changes while making up-or-down votes on the entire budget. Its power play would have rammed those changes through without the open and careful debate they deserved.
Finally, when House leaders held the line, senators agreed to treat policy proposals separately – perhaps to get concessions on spending. Memo to the House: Make sure to read the fine print.
The Senate’s bumptious budget tactics were in the same vein as other lowlights of the 2015 session – for example, the so-called Taxpayer Protection Act, which Republican senators dropped on the House practically out of nowhere in mid-August. The bill seeks to make dramatic changes in the state constitution arbitrarily limiting taxation and spending.
Then there was the one-page House Bill 765 dealing with gravel-hauling trucks that, once the Senate finished with it, had become a 58-page catalog of business-friendly regulatory changes.
The Senate, under President Pro Tem Phil Berger, led the charge to let magistrates decide which marriage ceremonies they would conduct – a move so hostile to the obligations of public officials and the rights of same-sex couples that Gov. McCrory vetoed it, only to be overridden. And it’s the Senate that has been more vigorous in pursuing partisan-tinged rules that could make it harder for people to vote.
Nobody could accuse the House’s Republican majority of not being solidly conservative. But with members arguably closer to the public pulse, it seems noteworthy that the House on the whole has been a moderating influence.
Those of us whose priorities include fair taxation, adequate revenues, an ample social safety net, robust voting rights and careful protection of the environment have to hope that moderation, at least, will win out as the legislature struggles to put a wrap on this lengthy, frustrating session.