Wake Dems Weekly Update: What's the Matter with North Carolina?

WAKE DEMS WEEKLY UPDATE, Vol. 1, No. 11

June 25, 2017
 

WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH NORTH CAROLINA?

In 2004, Thomas Frank released the book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, a study of conservatism’s rise in that state. More recently, Kansas has catapulted over a $1 billion fiscal cliff from its annual efforts to cut taxes and slash services. Now some are wondering if North Carolina is heading down the same path. If Republicans continue passing budgets like they did this week, we just may be.

After two weeks of haggling out the differences in the versions passed by the House and Senate, legislative leaders released the final version of the 2017-19 budget late Monday night. Generally when conferees get together, they come up with a compromise between the two extremes. But somehow the conference report is even worse than the bills passed by either the House or Senate.

That’s because conferees larded the budget with almost $100 million in pork, mostly to powerful Republicans’ districts. And they added tons of cuts and policy provisions which were in neither version that went through committee hearings and floor debate previously. Conference reports head straight for the floor, with no amendments allowed. And there was even less time for debate this week than on the original budgets, if that is possible.

Among the new provisions, many of which will probably continue coming to light after passage:

  • Attorney General Josh Stein is now legally required to defend the state in lawsuits, but with a far smaller staff after a $10 million, 40% cut to the Department of Justice, which will lead to the layoffs of over half of the department’s general-funded attorneys as soon as next Saturday, the start of the new fiscal year which the budget covers. This was done for the sole reason that Stein is a Democrat. He said these cuts will “eliminate the attorneys who work to prosecute criminals and keep them behind bars, who save taxpayers millions of dollars by defending against frivolous suits, who keep corporate bad actors in line, and who protect our clean air and water.” The police chiefs and district attorneys associations opposed the cuts.

  • In a similar vein, Gov. Cooper yet again found himself a target of the petty, power-hungry Republicans, who cut nearly $1 million from his office. But most gallingly, the governor is now prohibited from using his own lawyers without the General Assembly’s permission. And he is effectively banned from hiring outside counsel (which he has used to successfully sue the General Assembly over its unconstitutional laws), a right the legislature has retained for itself. Cooper would ordinarily sue immediately to regain a check on legislative power grabs--but can he now?

  • State employees who start service in 2021 or later will no longer receive health benefits in retirement, a blow to teacher and public service recruitment efforts. We get the government we pay for.

On top of all that, there is still all the bad and ugly we already knew about. The governor’s office has a helpful chart comparing his vision to the visionless legislative budget. Let’s break it down simply:

WINNERS:

LOSERS:

  • Our Kids and Teachers. The GOP budget fails our schools and our future workforce. Republicans offer only modest pay raises (3.3%), lower than the 5% this year and 10% over the biennium in Gov. Cooper’s budget. Also in Gov. Cooper’s budget were a stipend for teachers with out-of-pocket expenses, plans for free community college, and money to finally end the pre-K waitlist. None of those priorities made the GOP budget.

  • Rural North Carolina. The GOP budget leaves rural North Carolina behind. Republicans allocate just $250,000 to expand rural broadband access, a drop in the bucket compared to Gov. Cooper's $20 million plan. The GOP budget also spends only $2 million on a ready-sites program to attract new jobs to rural areas, a whopping $28 million less than Gov. Cooper’s plan.

  • The Economy. The Republican budget calls for a modest 3% spending boost, failing under even the most conservative estimates to keep pace with either inflation or North Carolina’s booming population. Investments between 3.8% and 4.6% are necessary to just keep up with the overall economy; Gov. Cooper’s budget, for comparison, amounts to a 5.1% increase.

In the end, legislators passed the budget Wednesday and Thursday by what appear to be veto-proof margins in both chambers. Gov. Cooper has until next Sunday night, July 2nd, to decide whether he will in fact veto the bill, and he is expected to do so. As our Sen. Jay Chaudhuri pointed out in a tweet, “This budget is the product of an unconstitutionally constituted #ncga that doesn't reflect the will of the people,” but it, like so many bills over the last six years, will likely become law anyway. All of Wake County’s Republicans voted in favor of the budget, and all the Democrats against.

COMING NEXT WEEK

We will take a look at the final bills moving through the legislature as this session comes to a close.