Senate Budget Vote Turns Into Transparency Debate

Sep 15, 2015

The North Carolina Senate gave tentative approval for the budget in a party line vote
Credit Public Domain

The North Carolina Senate has given its tentative approval for the state’s budget. Tuesday's vote was along party lines, 33-16. But the debate didn’t focus on money.

The final state budget is the capstone to each legislative session.

“Today is the biggest legislative day of the year. It’s budget day,” said Senator Jeff Jackson, a Democrat from Mecklenburg.

And it was well overdue. But Jackson was in no mood to celebrate. The final budget wasn’t posted until 11:30 p.m. Monday. Jackson and his Senate colleagues were voting on the bill just less than 15 hours later. That left little time to digest the details of a complex spending plan.

“We have asked the state to wait for months while we blow budget deadlines. We started a new school year without an education budget. Now that you finally have a budget, and people are asking for a chance to read it, before we vote on it, the answer is ‘no.’”  

More Democrats echoed that sentiment, including Minority Leader Dan Blue.

“Why the rush to keep us from seeing what’s good in this budget, what’s good and what’s bad, so that we can respond to our constituents when asked?”

The core of their argument: For 77 days only a handful of top Republicans from the House and Senate negotiated the details. And in budgets, the details matter. That’s where you find the consequences of the legislation, both intentional and unintentional--those that make headlines, and those that don’t.

Like the $200 million in additional fees North Carolinians will have to pay at the DMV. Or increasing the cost of state mandated medical screenings on newborns from $19 to $24.

Transparency, Democrats such as Senator Floyd McKissick argued, was the first casualty of this budget.

“What we have here today is a bill that even if we agree there are things that need to be changed, it’s too late to make it better. It’s too late to make a difference. It’s too late for us in the back row to change an outcome.”

Because the budget is a conference report, Senators couldn’t offer amendments. They could only vote the bill up or down.

Republican Senator Tom Apodaca eventually had enough of the complaining.

“Yes there were some increases in some fees. But the cuts on the taxes exceeded the increase of the fees. So that’s fiscal responsibility.”

And Apodaca reminded the chamber that back when Democrats ruled Raleigh, they also rushed budget votes.

“Yes, back at that time Senator Blue, if you don’t remember, I didn’t hear your righteous indignation there or … trying to make it a better process. Y’all were part of the process.”

More Republicans told stories of not seeing a budget until the morning of the vote.

During all this bickering about process, fairness, geese and ganders, and what’s best for the state, Democratic Senator McKissick brought up what is a political reality for both parties.

“We’ve got to make this process work more openly, more transparently. Because the political pendulum swings back and forth.”

The Senate will have its final vote on the budget later today. The house will vote on Thursday. Lawmakers have until the end of this week to pass a budget before the current temporary spending measure runs out.