Write N.C. budget in a businesslike way

The late Jimmy Green, a powerful Eastern North Carolina lawmaker who at the time was speaker of the N.C. House, came by several years ago to brief Observer editors on the upcoming legislative session.

What will be the biggest issue, we asked.

What it always is, he replied: How to divvy up the money.

So it is.

While our General Assembly deals with many important and challenging issues, one of the toughest is always how to divide the money appropriated in the state budget.

Because there's never enough money to satisfy every legislator's wish list, the finalizing of the budget is the stage of the legislative session when democracy often is thrown out the window and raw power rules.

When the last deals are being made on who gets what, knowledge is power. Yet too often the legislature's most powerful members don't share information in a timely manner with their colleagues or with the public.

The result? Non-financial matters that should not be part of a budget bill suddenly show up in it. Money that wasn't there appears as if by magic. Surprise funding for legislators' pet projects is tucked away to be discovered only long after the budget has been adopted.

This helter-skelter, under-the-table process concentrates too much power in too few hands. It's no way to spend the state's money.

At the bottom of this column today Jane Pinsky, director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, urges legislators to adopt a budget process that would better serve the interests of not only interested citizens but also members of the legislature.

The reforms her group and others recommend would accomplish three worthwhile objectives: allow the public to see what's happening to its money; give legislators an opportunity to know what's in the budget before they vote on it; and in general conduct the people's business in an open and orderly manner.

Adopting these procedures would serve the interests of everyone but those few powerful legislators who benefit from keeping their colleagues and the public in the dark.

To the legislators, we urge this action: Take a look at the reform recommended below, and do it.