There’s one person who can take one bold step to fix one big problem with the N.C. legislature’s budget process.
It would be a politically risky move, but it also would be one that’s politically smart.
Are you ready, Gov. McCrory?
The governor knows – as do many others – the problem that needs addressing: Each year, House and Senate lawmakers use the annual budget as a vehicle to make changes to state policy and law. Often, those changes are slipped into the huge budget bills at the last minute. That means the items get little if any debate before being voted on. It also means rank-and-file lawmakers end up pressured by House and Senate leaders to ignore individual provisions they might reject in order to pass the budget as a whole.
It’s happened frequently this year, in big ways and small. The small provisions include a change in law tucked into the Senate budget that would block access to public records such as the governor’s travel schedule. The big provisions include reform to the state’s Medicaid plan, as well as significant new jobs, incentives and sales tax distribution plans.
The same thing happened, of course, when Democrats ruled the General Assembly. We criticized it then, and so did Republicans, but now they use the Democrats-did-it-too justification for giving into the same bad behavior.
That’s no excuse. North Carolinians know it. The governor knows it.
“I think we’re putting ... too much policy in the budget and not separating that from the budget,” McCrory told the (Raleigh) News & Observer last week. “Those are the things a lot of legislators, and myself, said that we wouldn’t do because we criticized the Democrats for doing that for the last 25 years.”
The governor can do something about it. He can tell lawmakers that he won’t sign a budget unless it includes a provision banning, beginning next session, any budget item that changes law or written state policy.
Lawmakers would surely howl. They’d argue that such a measure would hamstring the legislative process. What it would actually do, however, is force efficiency on them.
Instead of majority lawmakers proposing competing and contradictory policy measures in budgets – or stuffing little-noticed provisions on page 382 of 500 – lawmakers would be required to put their proposals up for public and legislative debate. There’s nothing better at winnowing out bad bills than the prospect of a full and transparent hearing. Which, by the way, is what all new policy measures should get.
Let’s not be naive. Demanding a new budget rule would be risky for the governor. Republicans won’t like the idea, and if they were to override a budget veto, McCrory will look weak.
But the governor surely understands that he already does. From the start of his tenure, he’s been the boy on the runaway horse, unable to rein in a conservative and dismissive Republican legislature. Even if the governor were to face yet another veto override, the stand he takes will earn him critical points with the moderates he needs to win reelection in 2016.
Besides, he just might win. McCrory can show the voting public his political chops by gathering bipartisan legislative support for his demand. Making the budget process efficient and transparent isn’t a partisan issue, after all. It’s a good government issue.
The governor can help us get closer to that. He should at least try.