The recent announcement by leaders in the North Carolina General Assembly that changes to the current two-year budget will be settled in a conference report, and not through the regular appropriations committee process has drawn a lot of ire. The announcement forced legislators into only a yes or no vote, confined debate, and shut down the amendment process.
The fact that this step away from the traditional process has made some people angry is justified. The state budget operates in two-year cycles – a biennium. In odd-numbered years, the General Assembly comes to Raleigh for the “long-session” that lasts – typically – from January to July with a budget passing before June 30. In even-numbered years, the General Assembly comes into session for the “short session,” which is chiefly focused on adjusting the budget passed the previous year and other bills related to spending or revenue. In both, short and long sessions, the state budget runs through various appropriations committees and is available for amendments, debates on those amendments, followed by deliberation on the whole budget.
There is nothing illegal or unethical about stepping away from the traditional process, but it does lack the transparency that citizens, the press, and lobbyists have become accustomed to for the past 30 years.
However, let’s not kid ourselves about why Republican leaders chose this process.
The coordination between the Democratic Party leadership and special interest groups for demonstrations at the General Assembly has often forced the legislative process to occur in a circus-like media spectacle. No one can or should want to try to legislate amidst vitriolic protests whose only aim is to coordinate with the minority party to score political points for November, and not help in meaningful policy debate.
Nonetheless, Republican leaders at the General Assembly have forgotten two crucial political maxims: sound policy makes good politics, and sound policy comes from good debate.
The traditional budget process was put in place to make sure that all legislators had a hand in crafting the most critical piece of legislation each year. Politicians don’t care for stories about process, but process is essential to a representative government because it provides citizens the transparency necessary to know if lawmakers are acting as good stewards of taxpayer money. Deliberation in appropriations subcommittees, committees and floor votes allows government watchdogs and lawmakers to find inappropriate spending and policy changes in the budget.
The traditional budget process is also critical to maintaining leadership, by involving all legislators. North Carolina voters are only able to vote for legislators in their districts, not the leadership positions at the General Assembly. By allowing a few legislators to craft budget changes through a conference report, legislative leaders have made some legislative districts more valuable than others. Furthermore, there are likely several members of both parties who feel that their voices have not been heard.
A good many of the problems that currently exist in our nation’s capital came about because Congress stopped passing the budget in “regular order.” The lack of transparency and ramming budgets through Congress has helped to exacerbate our federal debt crisis, now over $21 trillion. The North Carolina General Assembly has stepped away from the traditional process this one time, but doing something once can quickly turn into a habit.
North Carolina taxpayers deserve to hear from Republican leaders that this conference process is a one-off and is not the norm. Further, taxpayers also deserve a pledge from the Democrats who so ardently oppose this year’s budget practice that they will never short-circuit the budget process if and when they come into power.