North Carolina’s new state budget – now on a fast track to final enactment by the Republican-controlled General Assembly over Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto – represents a miserable failure in open, accountable legislating.
Apparently for the first time on record, a budget bill was forced through the state Senate and House via a process that didn’t allow any amendments even to be considered.
Yes, it’s true that this budget, for the fiscal year beginning July 1, was approved in tentative form a year ago as part of the legislature’s two-year budgeting cycle.
But the normal process wisely allows for tweaks before the cycle’s second year kicks in. This year, any such changes were made behind closed doors by budget-wranglers who answered to the Republican chiefs in their respective chambers – Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger of Eden and Speaker of the House Tim Moore of Kings Mountain.
What emerged was a bill that notably responded to public pressure for higher teacher salaries. Yet legislators aligned with Cooper – who has called for even bigger teacher pay hikes and who has identified a perfectly reasonable way to pay for them – weren’t allowed to try to shape the bill in that fashion.
Debating proposed amendments was too inconvenient when Berger, Moore & Co. already knew exactly what they wanted to do.
And it was potentially too embarrassing for Republicans who would have been under orders to vote against a teacher pay plan preferred by public school advocates and teachers but advanced by Democrats.
Might Democratic legislators have offered amendments and forced votes in an effort to score political points, even if they were almost guaranteed to lose? Sure.
But that’s the sort of thing that happens when policies are set in the course of open debate, with competing views being aired and with legislators taking responsibility for their positions as amendments and bills are voted up or down. In other words, it’s the sort of thing that happens when a system operates as a democracy, not merely as a tool to impose the agenda of those in power.
Republican chiefs decided on their own what the new budget’s final version would look like and how it would be handled. They wound up stumbling even farther down their ill-chosen policy path of tax relief mainly benefiting those on whom fortune has already smiled.
They also short-circuited the deliberative process in a way that serves their own political ends: The sooner this legislative session is over and done with, the sooner they and their troops can get out on the campaign trail in advance of what are shaping up as unusually competitive fall elections.
The Senate, by a party line tally of 34-13, overrode Cooper’s budget veto on June 7 and the House is set to follow suit on June 12. Once the budget is in place, another politically self-serving GOP initiative is likely to draw the spotlight: a proposed amendment to the state constitution, put forward with a strong push from Speaker Moore, requiring voters to show a photo ID before casting an in-person ballot. House Bill 1092, introduced on June 7, would set a statewide referendum on the amendment during the elections in November.
Tellingly, no specifics as to how the ID requirement would work are included in the bill; a follow-up law would have to be passed. Whether such a law would get over the federal constitutional bar likely depends on how strictly it limited the kinds of acceptable identification. What top Republicans may well hope is that a referendum on voter ID would boost friendly turn-out during an election when many voters are likely to be motivated by disgust with a reckless, ethically challenged president, putting Republican candidates at risk.
On the surface, the $23.9 billion budget for 2018-19 looks to be a steady-as-it-goes sort of spending plan, with modest increases in several areas. The state employee workforce, which came under predictable strain as wages stagnated during the post-2008 recession, will receive raises of at least 2 percent. Teachers’ pay hikes will average 6.5 percent, although classroom veterans won’t fare as well as their junior colleagues. Their experience still isn’t properly valued.
Cooper had called for teacher pay to go up by an average of 8 percent, and when he spoke to thousands of teachers who rallied outside the Legislative Building on May 16, he connected with this politically potent group. Their bond again was evident when teachers joined him on June 6 for his veto announcement.
“When you are continuing to drop in per-pupil expenditures, when you’re still 37th in the country in teacher pay, that’s unacceptable,” the governor declared. His formal veto statement was short and stinging: “I will not sign my name to a budget that protects corporations and the wealthy at the expense of schools and students. This budget falls short of what our teachers and public education need. North Carolinians will not stand for a secret, unchangeable budget born of a broken legislative process.”
Cooper had targeted the legislature’s decision to continue with cuts in personal and corporate income taxes, despite previous cuts that are costing the state an estimated $2.6 billion a year compared with the revenue that otherwise would have been collected. The annual cost of further cuts slated to take effect in 2019 is pegged at $900 million.
His idea was to suspend the planned reduction in the corporate tax from 3 percent to 2.5 percent while keeping the personal income tax at 5.499 percent for earnings above $200,000. That would have funded his proposed teacher pay raises and addressed some other priorities, especially in environmental protection — an area ravaged by legislative budget-cutting that has gone hand in hand with the reckless loosening of regulations.
Moore ripped Cooper’s veto, saying the governor “has once again shown that he is more concerned about scoring political points than helping North Carolinians.” What the speaker and his allies aren’t eager to acknowledge is that despite the new budget’s various spending increases, the entire budget has endured what amounts to a hollowing out under tax-cut pressure.
Even if there’s an election-year effort to mask the damage, the state has fallen behind on a range of public investments that help give people fair access to opportunity – investments in education, health care, transportation, the justice system, uplift for struggling rural counties. Those are the kinds of policy choices that again will hang in the balance when voters go to the polls this fall.
If voter ID also is on the ballot, the chemistry of the election could be altered – and from the standpoint of social justice advocates including the N.C. Council of Churches, not altered in a good way. A voter ID requirement is popular, and it’s possible to imagine such a rule that would not be unduly burdensome to citizens who lack a driver’s license or other standard type of government-issued identification.
But the Republican legislators who tried, starting in 2013, to enforce such a rule weren’t so much interested in preventing voter fraud – their cover story, despite no evidence that such fraud is a significant problem – as they were in eroding the number of Democratic-leaning voters. They bundled a strict ID requirement with other measures that a federal appeals court memorably, and damningly, said targeted African-American voters “with almost surgical precision.”
Groups such as the League of Women Voters will push back against voter ID if the referendum goes forward. Already they make a strong case. Yet in the absence of a law spelling out how the rule would work, opponents will have to argue against an abstract requirement that strikes many people as reasonable enough. And they’ll have to go to bat for minority voting rights – no doubt with demagogues claiming that what ID opponents really want is permission to cheat.
Voter ID from the start has been advanced in bad faith. Cheating of the sort that an ID rule would prevent is practically non-existent. And the legislature’s Republican majorities have been eager to warp the state’s election rules in their favor – warp them so badly that federal judges have told them to stop. This fall, if a referendum battle unfolds amidst attempts by Republican legislators to hold power, justice advocates will want to keep that sorry history in mind.