Dog tired these days and barking

Jul. 20, 2014 @ 12:51 AM

They call this time of year the “dog days” of summer, long days filled with heat and humidity. When our legislature is still in session lawmakers get dog-tired, resulting in a lot of barking due to short tempers.

Lawmakers reconvened for the “short session” in May almost unanimously predicting they would revise the budget they passed in 2013 and adjourn before July 4th. Unlike recent years there was no compelling crisis and no major budget shortfall. But it wasn’t long before the political and philosophical differences between the House and Senate surfaced, emphasized by the Senate budget revisions in Medicaid and education. Veteran observers immediately understood we weren’t likely to have a revised budget by the July 1 beginning of the state’s fiscal year.

Dan Way with Carolina Journal researched the legislature’s library archives and reported that since 1981 tardy budgets have been the norm. In only nine instances has the budget been passed prior to July 1. Six were not passed until August, two were September being approved and, in 1998, the budget wasn’t concluded until the day before Halloween, October 30.

Why is this a problem? When the ink isn’t dry on a budget until after the government spending year has already begun the impacts reverberate all across our state. State agencies need to know personnel and spending levels and untimely delays force them to make erratic and costly management and budget decisions. Local governments get whipsawed when tax, education and other regulatory policies are late in coming. For example, local education systems often base teacher supplements on teacher pay; a state pay raise will likely dictate that school systems adjust local supplements after their county budgets have passed and are in effect. This is neither good nor effective government.

One reason for late budgets is that lawmakers need to know how much revenue they have to work with, information that isn’t sufficiently known until after March and April income tax returns are received and processed. But having watched this process for many years I’m not convinced that even if we moved the start date of the new budget year, to say October 1 or even January 1, it would prevent the last-minute lollygagging and haggling that always seems to occur.

The best solution is to have clearly established legislative session lengths, dictated either by a date certain ending or by concluding after a certain number of legislative meeting days. Only 11 states, including North Carolina, have no such restrictions. In some of the other 39 states those lengths are established by state constitutions or by state statutes. What is clear is that these states understand they cannot leave it up to legislators alone to establish the discipline needed to conclude their work in a timely manner and adjourn.

There would be another and perhaps even more desirable benefit to having established session limits. If lawmakers didn’t have to make such lengthy sacrifices of time away from jobs and family perhaps we might see more experienced people offer themselves in service.

As anyone who ever had to listen to a loud, continuously barking dog will tell you the noise gets old quickly. It’s time our lawmakers resolved their differences and spent their dog days of summer outside of Raleigh and fixed the real budget problem. 

Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, airing Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on WRAL-TV and at 8:30 a.m. on WRAZ-TV FOX50.  Contact him at www.ncspin.com.