Schools, others wait while budget-writers dither

Tom Campbell
Tom Campbell

From Tom Campbell, a former N.C. assistant treasurer and host of NC SPIN, a statewide television talk show:

Few are surprised our legislature came up to the deadline to pass a new state budget and was forced to pass a continuing resolution. It’s a regular occurrence. Fewer still have raised questions why and how this happens or what we could do to avoid this frantic annual budget crisis.

This is no way to run a government. Schools are due to begin next month and need to know how many teachers they can hire, what they will be paid and what new policies they must implement. We talk a lot about improving public education. Perhaps the biggest thing our legislature could do in that regard is to stop the disjointed budget dance they do each year. The same is true with many agencies and programs.

Some of us remember the days of the old Advisory Budget Commission, where handpicked citizens and legislators worked for months in advance to construct the new budget. Even the “Supersub,” a handful of House and Senate lawmakers that met behind closed doors, was able to get a budget passed in time for the start of the new year. We didn’t like that so few made so many critical decisions, but is that really so different from what happens today? At least they were not staring down the budget barrel every year.

Let’s consider ways to improve this process that obviously isn’t working well. Why not do away with the notion of a biennial budget? The “short session” that meets in even numbered years to tweak the two-year budget has become so lengthy lawmakers might as well pass annual budgets. It might remove some of the pressure of needing to get everything into a two-year plan and could even reduce the total time spent.

Why not also eliminate the tradition of having one house create a budget, pass it and then send it to the other, knowing they will refuse it and start their own deliberations? Why not have the House and Senate work together? Let them do the conferencing and compromising up front rather than delaying the process for weeks or even months?

We should also return to a zero-based budget, where every agency and program has to come before lawmakers every few years and prove their merit in order to continue funding. At $21 billion this is a large undertaking but it would force legislators to make spending priorities and could actually free up funds that could be used for schools, building roads and public infrastructure.

And there is no reason we shouldn’t move the start of the budget year from July 1 to January 1. This would allow lawmakers plenty of time to get it right. We don’t want a budget hastily designed, passed under stress to meet an arbitrary deadline. What we need is a thoroughly vetted spending plan that has time to marinate before being implemented. This could easily be accomplished by passing a continuing resolution through December 31, instead of for just 30 or 45 days.

North Carolina has become just like our federal government in snarled negotiations, failed deadlines, knee-jerk authorizations and hastily passed budgets. We are better than this and challenge our governor and our lawmakers to show us they are up to the task.