House and Senate leaders are now meeting behind closed doors trying to work out the differences between the budgets passed by each chamber and come up with a final spending agreement.
It is an annual ritual that usually takes weeks, sometimes months, as the two budgets are often far apart in tax policy and spending priorities. It is not likely to take long this year — and that is not good news.
Both budgets fall woefully short of making the investments in education, human services and environmental protections the state needs.
That was preordained by the $2.8 billion in tax cuts mostly for corporations and the wealthy passed by Republicans since 2013, and it was confirmed not long after this session began when legislative leaders agreed to overall spending levels well below historic averages as a percentage of the state’s economy.
It was confirmed again a few weeks later when key legislators in both chambers said yet another round of tax cuts was a top priority. Whatever was left would be divided among teachers and state workers and struggling families.
There are some significant differences between the House and Senate budgets, most notably in the size of the tax cuts with the Senate slashing income taxes again, but overall the dispute is around the edges not with fundamental choices.
Both plans, again, shortchange state workers and retirees after years of neglect. Both plans pick and choose which teachers deserve a meaningful raise, when all of them do.
And both plans continue to pile up savings in the state’s rainy day fund, instead of spending enough in this year of surplus to help the thousands of low-income people in eastern North Carolina still struggling from the devastation of Hurricane Matthew last fall.
Senate leaders included breathtakingly bad policy decisions in their budget, including one provision taking food benefits fully funded by the federal government away from 133,000 people and another than bans wind farms in the state.
The already bad Senate plan was made even worse in the final hours of debate when Republicans leaders stripped funding for economic development and education programs for low-income kids in Democratic districts to punish Democrats who dared to offer amendments to change the spending plan handed down from on high.
The Senate budget went from anemic and dangerous to spiteful.
House leaders left out most of the onerous policy changes the Senate included, but their budget has a different problem. It’s full of smoke and mirrors.
It diverts federal block grant money to expand early childhood programs — a noble intention, but President Trump has promised deep cuts to block grants, which may leave the children stranded.
The House frees up money by ending state funding to counties for the delivery of social services, shifting the cost to anther federal block grant — which is scheduled to be eliminated.
House leaders take $50 million out of the General Fund and shift it to transportation and then replace it with lottery proceeds, in effect funding roads with lottery revenue that was promised to be spent only on schools.
Lottery money is also used in the House budget to pay for support staff in schools, which was never the point either.
The gimmicks run throughout the House spending plan. There is a provision calling for an audit of the Department of Public Instruction and then a million dollars in savings included in the second year from the audit that has yet to be conducted.
The House eliminates the funding mechanism for legal services for low-income people, which saves the state only $2 million but could devastate thousands of people’s lives.
And the House creates a likely budget shortfall in the second year of the spending plan, which sets the stage for even more budget cuts to come. And remember: this is a year of budget surpluses and a growing economy.
Add it all up and the secret budget negotiations come down to reconciling the anemic spiteful budget of the Senate and the anemic dishonest budget of the House.
It is a choice lawmakers should not have to make and one that the people they represent don’t deserve. There’s another way, and they could start by taking another look at the budget proposed by Gov. Roy Cooper.
It’s not perfect either but it is not dishonest or spiteful and it actually puts education and families ahead of tax cuts and rigid anti-government ideology. Imagine that.
Chris Fitzsimon is founder and executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.