Politics & Government

Two-thirds of legislature to attend private budget talks

N.C. State Budget Director Lee Roberts, center, talks with members of the Senate Republican Caucuses after a closed-door meeting. Governor Pat McCrory, not seen, discussed the state budget and the bond proposal to both the Republican House and Senate Caucuses at the N.C. General Assembly in Raleigh on Thursday, July 16, 2015.
N.C. State Budget Director Lee Roberts, center, talks with members of the Senate Republican Caucuses after a closed-door meeting. Governor Pat McCrory, not seen, discussed the state budget and the bond proposal to both the Republican House and Senate Caucuses at the N.C. General Assembly in Raleigh on Thursday, July 16, 2015. clowenst@newsobserver.com

The legislature is going to need a bigger room for this year’s budget negotiations.

Republican leaders appointed 32 senators and 82 House members to the conference committee that will head behind closed doors to work out differences in the two chambers’ budget bills.

That represents about two-thirds of the entire legislature – the largest number of budget negotiators in recent memory and likely more people than can fit in the biggest available conference room.

It also means senators will be outnumbered when the committee meets, but Senate leader Phil Berger says that’s not a concern.

“The good news is you don’t take a vote in the committee where every member of the committee has an equal vote” on the final budget, he said.

Instead, the final agreement will require support from a majority of the negotiators on both the House and Senate sides.

Legislative leaders say they don’t think the unusually large committee will slow down the process. The budget talks will be broken down by subject area – much the way both chambers have appropriations subcommittees devoted to topics such as education and health care.

“What happens is you task things out – you don’t necessarily have everybody in every conversation,” House Speaker Tim Moore said.

And not every appointed negotiator will have an equal role. House Democratic Leader Larry Hall said he expects the 19 House Democrats on the committee will have a “seat in the audience” rather than a seat at the table.

Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, agrees with Hall’s assessment.

“I don’t know whether those people are really going to have much material influence over what comes out,” he said. “It’s going to be the leadership that’s really going to make the decisions, presumably while there is communication going on with the governor’s office.”

On the Senate side, appropriations committee co-chairs Harry Brown, Brent Jackson and Kathy Harrington will serve as chairs. The House will have Republican Rep. Nelson Dollar of Cary as senior chairman, with seven co-chairs – all of whom are top budget writers or GOP caucus leaders.

That group can – and probably will – hold meetings separately from the full committee.

82 House committee members

32 Senate committee members

19 Democrats on committee

95 Republicans on committee

3 Senate chairs

8 House chairs

So what’s the political advantage of having so many other negotiators?

“The rationale for appointing so many is to give them a sense of ownership in the budget report that will come out,” Taylor said. “Even if they don’t really have much meaningful influence, there’s a sense that they’ve been a close part of the process.”

That feeling makes the legislators involved more likely to vote yes on the final budget, Taylor added.

The out crowd

Being on the budget committee is also a reward of sorts for legislators who supported their chamber’s leadership on the original budget bills.

Both Berger and Moore appointed only legislators who’d voted yes on their budget proposals.

That means some Republicans will be shut out when the committee goes behind closed doors – most notably Sen. Bob Rucho, the Finance Committee co-chairman and a Mecklenburg County Republican.

He’s the only Senate Republican who’s not on the committee, likely because he’s the only senator in his party who voted against the budget. Rucho has said he supports the vast majority of the 500-page Senate budget, but he voted no because the bill included a change in how sales tax revenues are distributed among counties.

Mecklenburg would lose money under the plan, and Rucho has said he “can’t vote against my county.” He didn’t return a phone call Friday seeking comment on the snub.

On the House side, Moore left out the 11 Republicans who voted against the budget. That group includes the chamber’s most conservative – and often outspoken – legislators like Rep. Michael Speciale of New Bern and Rep. John Blust of Greensboro, as well as once-powerful legislators like Rep. Justin Burr of Albemarle and Rep. Julia Howard of Mocksville who lost leadership positions after Moore took over.

Moore appointed 19 of the 32 Democrats who voted for the House budget, leaving out mostly junior members of the party.

Other bills face deadline

All this means that 56 legislators who aren’t on the budget committee will have more time on their hands.

Senate leaders announced last week that they want to wrap up other committee work on legislation by next Thursday – meaning bills that haven’t cleared committees by that time likely won’t get a floor vote this session. The legislature has a deadline of Aug. 14 to pass a budget, but the deadline could be extended.

“The idea is we can get things in order so the only order of business left is to get the budget finalized,” Berger said.

But Berger said he doesn’t think many lawmakers will go home while the budget talks are under way. “I think even if they’re not directly involved in negotiations over the budget, folks want to be here so they can have input when questions come up,” he said.

Staff writer Colin Campbell

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The Triangle’s budget negotiators

Find out if your legislators were appointed to the General Assembly’s budget conference committee last week:

Wake County

Republicans: Sen. John Alexander, Sen. Tamara Barringer, Rep. Chris Malone (vice chairman), Rep. Nelson Dollar (senior chairman), Rep. Paul Stam, Rep. Marilyn Avila (vice chairwoman), Rep. Gary Pendleton

Democrats: Rep. Darren Jackson, Rep. Duane Hall

Durham County

No Durham legislators were appointed.

Orange County

No Orange legislators were appointed.

Johnston County

Republicans: Sen. Ronald Rabin, Sen. Buck Newton, Sen. Brent Jackson (chairman), Rep. Leo Daughtry (vice chairman), Rep. J.H. Langdon

Democrat: Rep. William Brisson (vice chairman)

Franklin County

Republican: Sen. Chad Barefoot

Chatham County

No Chatham legislators were appointed.

New Domecast online

Check out the latest edition of Domecast. This week’s show looks at what’s ahead for the legislature, what its most pressing issues are and our best guesses on when this year’s long session will conclude. Search for Domecast on iTunes or find the post with a link to the audio at newsobserver.com/dome.

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