Budget brinkmanship

Jul. 12, 2014 @ 02:46 PM

North Carolina state government is entering the third week of the new fiscal year, and still our legislators have been unable to come up with the budget revisions that are the principal reason for the short legislative session that began in May.

Widespread belief back in the session’s early days that legislators would be so eager to get out of Raleigh by the end of June – if not before – that they would wrap up their work quickly seems quaint now as the session drags into mid-July.

The sticking point, of course, is the budget adjustments. The House and the Senate have passed budgets with some sharp differences, and resolving them is proving difficult. Even with Gov. Pat McCrory – whose own budget proposal was quickly overshadowed by the two legislative versions – throwing his weight increasingly behind the House spending plan, the Senate is remaining stubbornly wedded to most its key points.

Part of the issue is the governor’s weight, unfortunately, is not very great. When McCrory threatened to veto any budget that included the dramatic teacher pay hike in the Senate’s plan, Senate leader Phil Berger pointedly reminded him of the political landscape.

“The governor has been unable to sustain any of his previous vetoes in the Senate,” Berger said.  Berger accused the governor of being unwilling to listen to his adversaries, instead favoring “media stunts and budget gimmicks.”

Perhaps after a weekend to reflect and let the rhetoric dissipate, the legislators and the governor will break the logjam this week. Now, many state departments are having difficulty moving forward with plans, unsure what their budgets ultimately will be. School districts across the state face uncertainty, unsure, for example, how much local money they will have to find – after their own budgets have been set – to ensure locally paid employees are treated equitably with state-paid ones.

And, of course, thousands of teacher assistants, whose jobs have become the principal bargaining chip in the budget negotiations, are in limbo.

It’s not that budget negotiations have made no progress. Indeed, we were pleased last week to see the House jettison its highly questionable proposal to raise money by increasing lottery sales. And the Senate finally backed away from its controversial plan to make raises contingent on teachers’ surrendering their career status.

On the remaining hurdles, the House and McCrory seem to have the sounder positions. The six percent teacher raises they prefer – inched up from an original five percent – are, as House Speaker Thom Tillis and McCrory have insisted, more sustainable and do not require draconian cuts elsewhere in the budget.

The Senate’s 11 percent figure is certainly not in and of itself wrong – after years of wage stagnation, teachers deserve that much. But since neither chamber showed any inclination to actually raise more revenue by abandoning ill-conceived tax cuts, the damage would be too great elsewhere. We hope McCrory and the House stand their ground, and the Senate backs away from its adamant stand,