The House passed the budget today by a vote of 66 to 44. Like yesterday, the vote was largely along partisan lines. The partisan vote relates to two things: first, the process used to pass the budget and, second, some of the spending or policy in the budget. In recent years, some number of Democrats have been supportive of budgets proposed by Republicans, at least some House budgets. This year, the budget process was not inclusive or very transparent, creating an impediment to garnering bipartisan support.
Some Democratic colleagues have kidded me about apparently becoming the apologist for the budget process this year. I explained to them that I didn’t intend for that to happen, but I was one of the few budget writers willing to comment on the process. It is no secret that I didn’t recommend this process; in fact, I recommended against it. However, once the process was set, I couldn’t step away from my responsibilities since Henderson County and western North Carolina still needed me fully engaged. Moreover, funding and policy on some number of issues, ranging from the Western Medical School to the GenX pollution issue could change based on my engagement.
Technically, this budget is an amendment of the two-year budget we passed last year. Probably 90% of it is the same. However, there are some major spending decisions and some policy decision being made. The inability to amend the budget or be involved in a committee process to develop it was understandably a huge impediment to obtaining Democratic support. Additionally, there were the usual hurdles: differences of opinion as to how to spend money, what taxes to levy, and policy on various issues.
The budget bill is now with the Governor; he now has ten days from when he receives it to either sign it or veto it. If he doesn’t sign it or veto it, the budget will automatically become law. The assumption is that he will veto it, and that the legislature will attempt to override the veto before the end of the fiscal year which ends on June 30. A three-fifths vote by both chambers will be needed to override any veto.
Folks may assume that when the budget is passed the legislature’s work on the budget has ended, but that isn’t true. Almost immediately after passage of the budget, work begins on a Technical Corrections bill—a bill to correct mistakes in the budget. With a document the size of the budget, mistakes can happen. Sometimes, there are just numbers that get transposed or a printing glitch drops a few words or a few lines, and those mistakes have to be corrected.
Sometimes, after passage, it is determined that there are unintended consequences to some funding or some policy in the budget. Legislators and staff will typically move quickly to correct those sorts of mistakes. Sometimes, a funding or policy decision in the budget just doesn’t seem right after legislators hear from the public. It is harder to fix a funding or policy decision that just doesn’t seem right in a technical corrections bill, but that isn’t to say that it hasn’t been done.
When normal processes are used in adopting a budget, some of the “fixes” get done through amendments offered during the budget process. However, the process used this year precluded amendments, so we may be looking at the need for more fixes.
It is still too early to know all of the changes that might be made to this budget, but a few potential issues are already evident:
Suicide Prevention Lifeline. There is no money in the budget to keep a suicide phone line open, a free and confidential service that helps people in emotional and suicidal crisis. A change.org petition says “Republican legislators didn’t include the $350,000 needed to keep the local call center open.” The problem with that narrative is that as a budget writer I was never asked for the money. The monies cut for this suicide prevention lifeline were cut in the federal budget, not the state budget.
Looking at the Governor’s budget, it proposed funding the suicide prevention lifeline as part of a larger request. With the Governor’s budget arriving just before the start of the session, it is not surprising that the item got dropped.
It is much like the monies cut from the Blue Ridge Literacy Council (which was discussed in my last newsletter)—something changed at the federal level. With the literacy council, budget writers worked on a fix to what was caused by the federal government.
One can’t fix something one doesn’t know anything about. Inexplicably, no one brought the suicide hotline issue up—neither lobbyists nor the NC Department of Health and Human Services. People are quick to assign blame, but in this case there was no funding cut made by the legislature. My hope, however, is we can fix the problem before the legislature adjourns.
Broadband. The City of Hendersonville along with several other western NC municipalities have been working to develop a regional strategy to improve high speed broadband in the area. The city raised its concern that a provision in the budget that could be read as prohibiting the municipalities from fronting the cost of the broadband infrastructure. The League of Municipalities agrees with the City’s assessment, and it is among the issues I hope will get addressed before the legislature adjourns.
VW Settlement. There is a provision relating to how the monies from the lawsuit arising out of Volkswagen settlement of the lawsuit over its manipulation of its air quality mechanisms on its automobile. It has been suggested that the wording of that provision could put at risk those funds coming to North Carolina. The issue needs to be further researched.
Triangle Rail. A provision in the budget arguably may cut federal funding for a light rail project in the Durham-Chapel Hill area. Money has been invested by Durham and Orange counties and the provision may block federal funding of the project. Unlike the other issues, this provision seems to be intentionally directed at the light rail project.
Over the coming weeks, lobbyists of all ilk will review the budget with their clients and they’ll probably suggest more changes. In fact, some who were unsuccessful in getting funding for some project or the inclusion of some policy may try to make changes through the technical corrections bill. Local governments or state departments may determine they also need some relief from some requirement in the budget or surprisingly some allocated funds may not be needed or wanted.
The flooding in western North Carolina could result in some change to the budget. Beginning next week, assessments of the flood damages will be made. Perhaps a federal disaster proclamation will trigger federal funding. It is just too early to know whether additional state funding relating to the flooding will be needed.
Another way to amend the budget is in a separate bill, and there are a number of bills filed that could make changes to the current budget. It is unclear how many of these bills will be able to run the gauntlet of passing both chambers before the legislature goes home in a few weeks.