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Closed door budget-craft eliminates amendments

RALEIGH — Republican legislative leaders’ decision to hold secretive budget deliberations was bad politics, and could further motivate angry Democrats to flood the voting booth this fall, political observers say.

GOP leaders counter that the budget they unveiled Monday night merely makes some minor adjustments in the two-year agreement enacted last year. In their view, Democrats used similar tactics when they had a lock on the General Assembly. And the spending plan for the upcoming year is fiscally sound, including higher pay for teachers and state employees, more tax cuts, and a boost in state rainy-day savings — a tough budget to reject in an election year, Republicans say.

Even so, analysts say the choice to offer the budget as a conference committee report, allowing no amendments, gives Republicans, with supermajority margins in both legislative chambers, a tactical advantage.

“I certainly think that they recognize there’s energy on the Democratic side," said Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer. Cutting the process short will deny Democrats a high-profile platform in budget debates to criticize GOP policies.

“I think this could be the real test this November — how far a party can go in using absolute power to their advantage,” Bitzer said. “It’s hard to compare, but it feels like the Democratic side is having their 2010 kind of a year.” Then, Republicans gained control of the General Assembly after more than a century of Democratic rule.

Rather than amend the 2018-19 budget, Republican legislative leaders chose to strip language out of an old insurance bill, and replace it into a conference report with the $23.9 billion General Fund budget proposal. The Senate Joint Appropriations/Base Budget Committee will meet at 10 a.m. Tuesday to review the report.

Lawmakers can only vote up or down on the budget.

Democrats condemned the tactic on Twitter last week and through the weekend.

“The disregard for the spirit of the democratic process is breathtaking,” wrote Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake. “There is a real fear of civil discourse from #ncga leadership.”

“Perhaps we can make it much more ‘efficient’ for #ncga leadership” to pass a budget, said House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake. He sarcastically suggested Republican lawmakers “could just sign a proxy [and] let just a handful of people write it and then approve it.”

“Transparency is a hallmark of a democratic republic, and when the process is done behind closed doors, and only presented for ratification where the votes are already there, it raises real questions about the civic process,” Bitzer said.

Shelly Carver, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, disagreed with the critics.

“The purpose of the short session is to adjust the two-year state budget that was fully vetted, debated, and passed over a six-month period last year — not to write an entirely new plan,” Carver told Carolina Journal by email.

“Lawmakers of both parties will have the opportunity to vote on the bill, and make their voices heard,” Carver said. “But we fully expect legislative Democrats and Gov. Cooper will attempt to use this to justify their opposition to a budget that will include a fifth consecutive teacher pay raise and substantial tax relief for millions of North Carolinians.”

Joseph Kyzer, spokesman for House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, defended the budget process.

“As appropriations leaders have emphasized, the legislature is only making adjustments to the biennium budget passed last year based on the state’s $356 million revenue surplus and record reserve fund,” Kyzer said.

“This year’s state budget will continue to deliver strong investment growth in North Carolina’s priorities like education and public safety while maintaining tax relief for families and businesses,” Kyzer said.

The process Republicans chose is legal, but unconventional, according to Gerry Cohen, former General Assembly special counsel.

He told the News & Observer he researched budget bills dating to 1985. This is the first instance when amendments will be prohibited on the House and Senate floors. Over 34 years, only three times did one chamber adopt the other’s budget without amending it.

But former House Majority Leader Paul “Skip” Stam recalls Democratic power plays. “We protested loudly” as a minority party in 2007, the Wake County Republican said.

Republican senators urged their House counterparts to pass the Senate’s budget unamended. Minority House Republicans sought nine Democratic colleagues to join them, backing the Senate budget so it wouldn’t go to a conference committee.

House Democratic leaders foiled the scheme. The ensuing conference report contained a half billion dollars of new spending neither the House nor Senate had approved separately. It also created land transfer taxes that failed in both chambers.

“I won’t say there was no debate, because we debated it hard. But just like this one, there will be debate but no amendments, and no real part of the process,” Stam said.

In 2004, Stam said, Democrats brought a budget conference report to the House floor for an immediate late-night vote. He objected, and then-House Speaker Jim Black allowed less than an hour to review 500 pages of budget documents before voting.

N.C. State political science professor Andy Taylor said Republicans’ decision to budget by conference report is not surprising. Power has crystallized for many years among a small cadre of leaders who control budget decisions, the legislative process, committee appointments, and district maps.

Some veteran lawmakers who weren’t part of the negotiations still don’t know what’ll be in the final package and have bristled at being excluded.

Retiring state Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, in late April spoke about that concentration of power. In a letter to House and Senate Republicans dated May 10 he strongly urged colleagues to reject a budget dropped into a conference report. He said Republicans have accelerated abusive practices Democrats started.

“It is elementary that each citizen of this state is entitled to equal representation in the chambers that make the laws which those citizens are bound to follow,” Blust wrote in the May 10 letter. “This is fundamental constitutional law and fundamental to the very essence of a republic. It should never be abused or traded away for any reason short of a public emergency.”

The conference process shuts out minority party members, Taylor said. But rank-and-file majority members also are affected because they can’t offer amendments.

Taylor said there’s no question the budget will pass. But it’s unclear if it will get the 60-percent vote needed to override a gubernatorial veto. Some Republicans upset about being excluded from the process, and what’s put in the spending plan, may vote no.

Rep. Jeff Collins, R-Nash, who’s also retiring at the end of the session, said the conference committee approach would be OK merely to tweak the budget. But the Republican caucus is split. If big policy issues or objectionable spending items were inserted, he might vote against it.

UNC-Greensboro political science professor Thomas Little said legislative leaders may prefer a speedy process, but it doesn’t inspire faith in representative government.

“It’s not a healthy process for democracy. If your argument is efficiency, democracy’s not efficient. That’s not one of its qualities. Never has been, never will be,” Little said. “The quality is representation and responsiveness, and you don’t get either with this.”