General Assembly budget writers have a monumental challenge this year that they haven’t faced in the past four. A Democrat in the governor’s mansion.
“I think there is zero chance that any budget passed by the General Assembly the governor won’t veto, and that we would have to ultimately override,” said Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, co-chairman of the Appropriations on Health and Human Services Committee, and a member of the Finance Committee.
It’s not sufficient to put together a 2017-18 General Fund budget agreement that would pass the House and the Senate by a narrow margin. The two bodies have to arrive at a plan that at least 72 House members and 30 senators — a three-fifths majority — will support, Hise said. There are 74 Republicans in the House and 35 in the Senate, enough to override a veto by Gov. Roy Cooper, but they can’t lose many votes with the final product.
The path leading to the budget already has been a rocky one. Cooper has filed a series of lawsuits over constitutional separation-of-powers issues. He issued three vetoes, all of which died in General Assembly override votes.
“At the end of the day I can’t see that even if we went crazy and spent all the money in the universe that the governor would be satisfied and happy,” Hise said. “I will tell you [in] the Senate our focus is to continue our disciplined spending approach, and that’s not consistent with the governor’s philosophy.”
Cooper’s $23.5 billion budget includes a 5.1 percent increase in state spending over the current budget. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, has criticized the girth of that budget as “runaway spending” that is “reckless.”
Since 2013, when Republicans took control of the General Assembly and the Executive Mansion, growth in General Fund budgets has stayed within the so-called TABOR limit — inflation plus population growth. For the upcoming fiscal cycle, that’s pegged at 3.8 percent, and GOP leaders say they intend to stay within those boundaries.
The House and Senate alternate in drafting the budget every two years. Now it’s the Senate’s turn to draft the biennial budget.
Hise said Senate budget writers have been working long hours and have met some of their goals to keep to a schedule that would allow votes next week. When the Senate is done, the budget will go to the House.
Among the provisions the Senate is working to include in the budget is a $1 billion tax cut included in Senate Bill 325.
“That’s something that has overwhelming support among the Senate, particularly among the Republican members, so I feel very strongly that will continue to remain part of our priority,” Hise said. The House might offer revisions, “but I think we’ve set the bar where we feel like we need to meet tax reduction.”
Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, suggested in early April that the House might pass a tax cut package even larger than the Senate’s.
“The larger we go the more excited I’ll get,” Hise said. Budget negotiations should focus on how much money lawmakers will allow the people to keep instead of how much government agencies should spend.
Hise said to date budget conversations have been much less contentious between the House and the Senate than they have been during his four terms.
State Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, chief budget writer for the House, agreed.
“I think there’s been a lot of cooperation in both chambers. We have met quite a bit over the last couple of months — a lot of very good, positive discussions, and I think that will continue,” Dollar said.
Like Hise, Dollar said he is very optimistic a budget would be produced before the end of June, when the fiscal year expires.
The House is doing as much work as possible preparing to receive the spending document from the Senate so that it can be turned around and sent to conference committee to iron out differences quickly, Dollar said.
While no major sticking points have been identified yet, “The further you move into the budget, you begin to address some of the areas in which there may not be agreement,” Dollar said.
“I think over the next two or three weeks we’ll find out where … we’re really going to have to bear down on, and negotiate, and figure out what we’re going to have to do,” Dollar said. “We’re not quite there yet.”