Few Feel ‘Urgency’ of State Budget Impasse | Beaufort County Now

Few people outside the bubble of N.C. state government seem to be paying much attention to the lingering impasse over a vetoed state budget. carolina journal, urgency, state budget, impasse, january 28, 2020
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Few Feel ‘Urgency’ of State Budget Impasse

Publisher's note: This post appears here courtesy of the Carolina Journal, and written by Mitch Kokai.

    Few people outside the bubble of N.C. state government seem to be paying much attention to the lingering impasse over a vetoed state budget.

    That's good news.

    Most people in this state are living their lives free of daily worries about political strife in Raleigh. That means they are more likely to be engaging in productive activity. It's all that productive activity that provides the fuel for state government to do the things its elected leaders agree to do - or, in the current case, all the things that are taking place despite political disagreement.

    If you're reading this column, you're more likely than most to know the basics of the budget stalemate. For those who have been too busy to pay attention, here's a quick rundown.

    Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper issued a veto last June 28 of a two-year state budget plan from the Republican-led General Assembly. That new budget had been scheduled to take effect three days later.

    Thanks to a recent change in state law, state government did not face a fiscal crisis when July 1 rolled around. Instead government agencies continued to operate under provisions of the last budget enacted into law.

    In the seven months since the governor's action, budget discussions have featured three key elements.

    First, GOP legislative leaders have tried to override Cooper's veto. State House Republicans succeeded with a controversial September vote, but the Senate has not been able to round up the single Democratic vote needed to finalize that veto override.

    Second, bipartisan bills dubbed mini-budgets have enacted popular provisions of the vetoed budget plan. Notable mini-budget provisions included pay raises for most state workers and steps that allowed federal funds to continue flowing into state government coffers.

    Third, Republican legislative leaders have negotiated off and on with their Democratic counterparts - and with Cooper - to reach an acceptable compromise. GOP legislators and Cooper have offered competing claims about those negotiations. Each side blames the other for refusing to make a deal.

    Key sticking points appear to focus on Cooper's desire for a large-scale extension of the state's Medicaid program, along with larger public school teacher pay raises. The vetoed budget featured 3.9% pay hikes.

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    At this point, those negotiations are off. State lawmakers would have no chance to act on any new negotiations until April at the earliest.

    Teachers with no raises are less than thrilled with the stalemate. Their union has been gauging support for a large-scale strike. Other groups inside and outside government also worry about budget provisions that did not find their way into an enacted mini-budget.

    As for the vast majority of North Carolina's 10 million residents? Most don't seem to realize a budget impasse exists. Even those that know about it don't seem particularly bothered by it.

    A recent press conference helped place the political fight in perspective. On Jan. 14 Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, addressed reporters covering the General Assembly's latest trip to Raleigh.

    "Other than the folks in this room and the folks who pay a whole lot of attention to what y'all say on television or write in your papers or on your blogs, the average person in North Carolina really doesn't feel an adverse impact from where we are," Berger said.

    "Can you point to one, two, three, a half dozen, maybe even two dozen things that would be better if we had the [vetoed] budget?" he asked. Sure. "But, overall, we're in pretty good shape."

    One television reporter pushed back. He specifically referenced the relatively new state law that helped prevent any part of state government from shutting down on July 1.

    "Is that a good thing if people don't recognize the urgency?" he asked. "If people don't understand - because there's no shutdown - why this matters? And people go on, not thinking about the budget? Is that a good thing?"

    The short answer: Yes.

    "On the whole, it is a good thing," Berger responded. "There are some negatives to it. I don't think there's anything that's perfect."

    "It's better that we didn't see state employees have to leave their jobs for two weeks or a month," he added. "We didn't have a situation where schools didn't have the funds to operate. I think that's a good thing."

    Berger didn't mention it, but it's also good for society when the inner workings of state government matter little in people's daily lives. People "don't recognize the urgency" of a state budget impasse because there is no urgency. Not for them. Not for their businesses. Not for their families. The partisan fight doesn't matter much.

    Would North Carolina be in better shape now with the provisions of the vetoed budget in place? Perhaps incrementally so.

    But it's comforting that most people have seen little impact from a budget fight that has stretched more than halfway through a budget year. Policymakers ought to keep that fact in mind when they feel pressure to "do something" about the budget impasse later this spring.

    Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.

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