One of the most often-used phrases these days by the media outlets that cover the General Assembly is “a little-noticed provision in the 500-page Senate budget bill…”
The News & Observer reported Tuesday that a little-noticed provision in the budget document threatens special downtown tax districts that fund development agencies.
The Asheville Citizen-Times reported that another little-noticed provision would repeal a law aimed at limiting the dominance of a local hospital in the regional health care market.
WRAL-TV reported Monday that yet another hidden provision could block access of the media to public records like the governor’s travel schedule out of concern for terrorism.
The list goes on and on and includes many changes in state policy that would affect thousands of people and some of the state’s biggest industries.
The Charlotte Observer reported recently that a “little-noticed provision in the Senate budget could drive bank traders out of Charlotte.”
Lindsay Wagner with N.C. Policy Watch reported that “a few short lines in the 2015-17 Senate budget would eliminate state-paid health retirement benefits for teachers and state employees hired after Jan. 1, 2016.”
None of the provisions were mentioned during the Senate budget debate that consisted of a few rushed committee meetings and then a floor discussion that focused primarily on a few key funding decisions, like the plan to fire 8,500 teacher assistants or end funding for drivers’ education.
Nobody debated the little-noticed but important provisions because nobody except a handful of Senate leaders even knew they were there.
And it’s a safe bet that there are plenty more of them that have yet to be discovered in the massive budget document that is supposed to be legislation detailing how state taxpayer money is spent, not a bill that changes numerous state laws and makes significant policy changes.
The problem isn’t the merits of each idea, though most of them are clearly not in the state’s best interests, but that any significant policy change deserves a full debate and an up or down vote that is impossible when they are part of a larger budget document that legislators in the majority are pressured by their leaders to support.
Voting against a substantive bill or supporting an amendment that changes it is one thing. Voting against the budget bill that was carefully crafted in secret by Senate leaders themselves is something else altogether.
Very few senators would dare to do that, which is why the secret provisions are stuffed into the budget in the first place. The practice is nothing new at the General Assembly but this year’s Senate budget takes it to an entirely new level.
The 500-plus-page budget that is chock full of secret provisions also has massive policy changes that are well-known and controversial and don’t belong in the budget document either. The budget includes a complicated reform plan for the state’s Medicaid system and changes the way local sales taxes revenues are distributed.
The budget expands the state sales tax to more services including advertising and veterinary care and makes changes to economic development policy and on and on.
Gov. Pat McCrory has blasted the Senate for stuffing so much policy in the budget bill, correctly pointing out that Republicans had long criticized Democrats for doing it when they controlled the House and Senate.
Legislative leaders don’t seem all that interested in what McCrory thinks, even after he said the process they used to pass a bill changing Greensboro City Council elections was shameful.
Shameful is the right word for how Senate leaders put the budget together too, with its hundreds of pages of policies and “little-noticed provisions” that affect people’s lives.
Lawmakers looking for a little interesting reading on this week they are taking off for vacation should pick up the Senate budget bill and see what else is in there.
Then they should come back to Raleigh and put a budget together and leave the policy and secret provisions for a different day when they can have the full and open debate they deserve.
Nothing that affects people’s lives in North Carolina should be done with a “little-noticed provision.”
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch, a progressive think tank affiliated with the North Carolina Justice Center.