Budget crunch time

Jun. 24, 2014 @ 06:03 PM

Expect this week to bring good deal of posturing in Raleigh, as legislative leaders and Gov. Pat McCrory try to reconcile three budget proposals that differ in fundamental ways.

The deadline is upon them – the new fiscal year begins next Wednesday and moreover many legislators will be increasingly eager to wind up the short session. They can’t do that until they pass a budget, although there were some speculation early this week that they could simply let the budget passed last year stand, since it does cover two years.

But that would negate the very reason the General Assembly adopted annual sessions – to make mid-course budget corrections without expecting revenue projections and spending decisions to hold up for a full two years.

One thing that is likely is that the public at large will have little glimpse of the negotiations over the competing budget plans. Although legislators have ebbed and flowed in how open the final throes of the budget process are, they generally have been less than transparent.

To be sure, despite the fact the House and Senate each developed their budgets with little if any public input or observation, some leaders have indicated a willingness to make at least some of this week’s negotiations more open.

“I don’t know that we’ve made a definite decision, but we’re leaning that way,” Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican who chairs the Rules Committee, told The Charlotte Observer’s Jim Morrill. “In my mind, it helps incentivize getting it done. That’s the overwhelming reason for doing it, speeding the process,” Morrill quoted Apodoca as saying.

“GOP leaders want the process ‘as open as possible,’ added Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger of Rockingham County,” Morrill wrote.

That would be welcome, but forgive us if, absent evidence to the contrary, we remain a bit skeptical that any public deliberation will be substantive, as opposed to mostly window-dressing. Despite Apodaca’s allusion to speeding the process, substantive discussion in a public forum are likely to be time-consuming and, remember, time is short.

And House leaders with whom Morrill talked appeared t more lukewarm toward open negotiations.

As we’ve noted before, the House budget, while problematic in many ways, is far more favorable on some key issues, most notably providing pay raises for teachers without wiping out thousands of teacher assistant slots or altering career status.  It will be interesting to see how that budget, which also seems more palatable to the governor, fares against the more radical Senate version.

Watching those hardball negotiations play out in public would be instructive.

Unfortunately, we agree with the wisdom of longtime political observer Ferrel Guillory at UNC, who told Morrill:

“While we would all applaud an effort by the state Senate to say all negotiations are open, sooner or later … we’ll end up with key decisions made by key decision-makers,” he said. “When things get stuck, somebody will unstick them.”

We may watch some acrobatics this week, but the center ring is unlikely to be in the spotlight.