If the state budget process seems polarized now, just wait. It could get even more quarrelsome as lawmakers contemplate how their votes might affect 2020 political prospects.
Call it the Three P’s — preening, posturing, and preparing for election campaigns — and some of that was on display during House committee and floor debate on the $23.9 billion budget proposal for 2019-20.
And it’s likely to intensify as the Senate considers its own spending plan, the two chambers reconcile differences … and then Gov. Roy Cooper likely vetoes the compromise package and sends everyone back to the negotiating table.
Political scientists say minority Democrats are trying to rile their base by highlighting hot-button issues. Angry voters may help the party take over one or both legislative chambers next year.
Analysts say the rancor isn’t unusual, because all 170 legislators face voters every two years. But they’re surprised Republicans haven’t invited more Democrats to the budget process after 2018, when the GOP lost its veto-proof supermajorities in both legislative chambers. Republicans will need Democratic support to defend against or override Cooper’s near-certain veto.
Cooper and Democrats also have an issue they think will give them an edge next year at the ballot box: Medicaid expansion. The governor has said legislation adding hundreds of thousands of N.C. residents to the Medicaid rolls will happen this year, either in the budget or through a separate bill.
But a budget change passed in 2016 removed leverage governors held during earlier standoffs: the threat of a state government shutdown. If the governor and legislature fail to agree when the fiscal year ends June 30, government agencies will stay open, operating at current spending levels. A stalemate could last for months.
N.C. State political science professor Andy Taylor said Democrats know they are unlikely to force significant changes in the budget at this stage. They believe most voters share their priorities. “But they really are doing it for a broader, and more political audience.”
Meredith College political science professor David McLennan agrees.
“I think they are trying to stake out as best they can some issues they can campaign on,” and any time they can cast Republicans as supporting a radical agenda they will, McLennan said.
But the parties agree on many issues, and aren’t far apart on others, so Democrats are using political gamesmanship to create issues that make them look further apart than they are, McLennan said.
Thom Little, UNC Greensboro political science professor, said it’s safe to assume most of the amendments and debate offered by Democrats were for show, and to make Republicans squirm.
“It’s posturing, lining up for the election to get some votes, get some people on the record on things they don’t want to be on the record on,” Little said.
Because Republicans haven’t invited Democrats to help craft the budget, and transparency was lacking until the appropriations bill was introduced, Democrats can portray the GOP as meeting behind closed doors in the dead of night, McLennan said. A similar argument undermined Republican support among some voters during legislative redistricting fights.
“This doesn’t look like politics have changed all that much even after the supermajorities were lost,” McLennan said. “We may have been expecting too much.”
Taylor said much of the substantive budget work traditionally occurs in private among a handful of majority party leaders and budget writers.
Being denied a seat at the table is part of the reason the minority party ratchets up protests against policy proposals and budget priorities during committee and floor debates.
As long as Democrats and Republicans remain in their respective corners, Cooper should gain leverage over the budget process, Taylor said. If the governor can keep Democrats with him, they could sustain his budget veto, hoping to force Republicans to give ground on some issues.
Both Taylor and McLennan say Cooper has been immune from backlash over his record 28 vetoes, 23 of which were overridden by Republicans. His popularity remains high among voters in various polls. That could embolden him to veto the budget, and stand firm.
They say if Republicans can’t override the veto, they could wait Cooper out, hoping to chip away at moderate Democratic members by offering district-specific deals. Cooper would try to persuade them they could get better deals if they back his veto.
House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, R-Wake, foreshadowed the debate over Medicaid during the first day of the budget debate. He offered a motion scuttling the budget temporarily until a new one could be drafted which added large numbers of residents to the government health-insurance program.
“Medicaid expansion is our No 1 priority this year,” Jackson said Thursday, May 2. He said 20 House Republicans and 55 Democrats support some form of expansion, and it would be ridiculous to send a budget to the governor, who probably would veto it without the Medicaid provision.
Jackson’s motion failed, but the message was clear.
Taylor said a Cooper veto could backfire if Republicans refuse to compromise and accuse him of playing politics. Voters likely don’t care as much about Medicaid expansion as they do education issues, and the Republican budget is not that far removed from many of the administration’s education priorities.
If a budget isn’t passed by the June 30 end of the fiscal year, and the impasse drags into July, August, or September, voters may start blaming Cooper, and his popularity would erode heading into a 2020 re-election bid, Taylor said.
Budgets have languished amid political turmoil before. The 2015 budget wasn’t signed until Sept. 18, and the 2001 budget was signed Sept. 26.
North Carolina’s budget process calls for the spending plan to be enacted by June 15 in odd-numbered years, and June 30 in even-numbered years. The General Assembly missed the deadline seven times from 2005 through 2015, and had to pass a continuing resolution of varying lengths to avoid a government shutdown. Some years multiple continuing resolutions were necessary to finalize a budget.
The continuing resolution process had drawbacks. The threat of a government shutdown gave the governor and his legislative rivals leverage in pushing for their priorities.
Three years ago, the General Assembly abandoned the continuing budget resolution. Under the new rules, if a budget isn’t passed on time, state government automatically operates at current funding levels indefinitely. When a new budget goes in effect, any changes in spending become retroactive to the July 1 start of the current fiscal year.
North Carolina is one of more than a dozen states using that approach, according to NCSL. In 22 states, government shuts down if budget deadlines elapse.
Erica MacKellar, NCSL senior policy specialist, said continuing budgets are a double-edged policy.
“On the one hand it allows more time for negotiations, and keeps government services running,” MacKellar said. But without deadline pressure, legislatures face less pressure to pass budgets on time.
“So far states seem to be on track for passing their budgets on time this year,” she said. Thirteen have wrapped up their new budgets, and five states have passed them and are waiting for their governors to sign them.