Democrats are upset that Republican legislators are mostly excluding them from state budget talks, as it's unlikely any proposed changes will be adopted once the budget is revealed.
Republican leaders plan to gut an old bill and amend it as a "conference report" to include their budget plans, meaning state lawmakers will have no method for amending the legislation.
Democratic Rep. Darren Jackson, the House minority leader, said the Republicans' plan amounts to a "secretive process that will prevent input and consideration" from all legislators.
"I am unaware of any instance in modern North Carolina history where the State Budget was amended via a process that did not allow for committee consideration, committee amendments, and floor amendments," Jackson, who represents Wake County, wrote in an email to Republican leaders.
Gerry Cohen, former head of the bill-drafting division in the legislature, said Republicans' charted course of action strays from previous years.
"I just read the bill status pages for all budgets starting in 1985 to date. There was no case where the bill was not open to amendment on the House and Senate floors," Cohen wrote in an email. Over 34 years, there were only three times that one of the chambers adopted the other's budget without amending it, he said. But, Cohen added: there's no case law that would invalidate Republicans' approach.
Shelly Carver, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger, said the purpose of the short session is to adjust the two-year state budget that was passed over a six-month period last year — "not to write an entirely new plan." Republicans hold a supermajority in the House and Senate, so it's unclear whether Democratic proposals would be adopted even if under a more open process.
"It's clear Gov. Cooper and legislative Democrats are upset they won’t be able to abuse that process to try to score political points in an election year, but lawmakers of both parties will have the opportunity to vote on the bill and make their voices heard," Carver wrote in an email.
Sadie Weiner, Gov. Roy Cooper's communications director, used her Twitter account to ask Republicans what they have to hide. She then referenced a night last year when they stripped education funding from schools in Democrats' districts. Those cuts were restored in the final budget deal.
"What are Republican leaders so afraid of that they won't allow Democrats on the conference committee or votes on their budget? Better teacher pay? A more fair tax plan? Investments in workforce training?" Weiner tweeted.
Republican state Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville described the process as "efficient" and praised Republicans in the House and Senate for working together.
"The House and Senate have been willing to compromise on issues in ways I've never seen before. We haven't followed the congressional model of throwing all sorts of things in the budget," McGrady said. "There is very little policy in the budget, and it mostly about numbers — how much we’re spending on various things —from salaries, to textbooks, to capital projects to roads."
The "downside," he said, "is that it’s not very transparent, whether to the public or to Democratic and Republican members.” But “things will become transparent relatively quickly.”
Republicans plan to raise pay for state employees and teachers, House Speaker Tim Moore said recently. They also plan to bolster the state incentives program to attract big companies. Those changes come as tech giant Apple considers locating a campus in Research Triangle Park.
McGrady acknowledged that Republicans have the midterm elections in mind as they negotiate details of the budget. Every seat is up for election in the N.C. General Assembly this year, and Democrats need four House seats or six Senate seats to break the Republican supermajorities.
“There’s clearly an effort to avoid contentious issues," McGrady said. "We’re just talking numbers."
This story has been updated to reflect comments made by Rep. Chuck McGrady. A previous version of the story erroneously quoted McGrady saying legislative Republicans were following the "Congressional" bill-drafting model.