I blinked and had to re-read the Twitter response to ensure I read it correctly. What had begun with a question from me about a legislative policy change with North Carolina’s Highway Fund had somehow culminated in an answer from a legislative attorney which read, “maybe one strategy would be to hold your tongue until you actually know what is happening instead of creating bad blood with the folks who actually make these decisions.”
There is no way to read that response other than, “It’s not your place to ask questions of elected officials.” It echoes Nancy Pelosi’s famous “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it” line about Obamacare.
It smacks of a “ruling-class” mindset. And that mindset highlights the problem with this year’s state budget process – in that there is no process, and the mindset that taxpayers should “hold [our] tongue” is why it seems okay on Jones Street.
This year, as they did in 2018, leaders in the North Carolina General Assembly have decided that changes to the current two-year budget will be settled in a conference report and not through the regular appropriations committee process.
The regular state budget operates in two-year cycles – a biennium. In odd-numbered years, the General Assembly comes to Raleigh for the “long session” that lasts – typically – from January to July, with a budget passing before June 30. In even-numbered years, the General Assembly comes into session for the “short session,” which is chiefly focused on adjusting the previous year’s budget and other bills related to spending or revenue. In short and long sessions, the state budget runs through various appropriations committees and is available for amendments, debates on those amendments, and deliberation on the whole budget.
There is nothing illegal or unethical about stepping away from the traditional process. Still, it lacks the transparency that citizens, the press, and lobbyists have become accustomed to for the past 30 years.
However, let’s not kid ourselves about why Republican leaders chose this process.
The coordination between the Democratic Party leadership and leftist pressure groups for demonstrations, along with the brinksmanship negotiation tactics of Gov. Roy Cooper, has often forced the legislative process to occur in a circus-like media spectacle. No one can or should want to try to legislate amidst vitriolic protests whose only aim is to coordinate with the minority party to score political points for November and not help in meaningful policy debate.
Nonetheless, Republican leaders at the General Assembly have forgotten two crucial political maxims: sound policy makes good politics, and sound policy comes from good debate.
The traditional budget process was implemented to ensure that all legislators had a hand in crafting the most critical piece of legislation each year. Politicians don’t care for stories about process. Still, the process is essential to a representative government because it provides citizens the transparency necessary to know if lawmakers are acting as good stewards of taxpayer money. Deliberation in appropriations subcommittees, committees, and floor votes allows government watchdogs and lawmakers to find inappropriate spending and policy changes in the budget.
Without that process, I had to ask questions about the state’s Highway Fund less than 48 hours before the state Senate took its first vote on the budget. When or how else was I, or any other taxpayer, supposed to get answers on the 192-page state budget bill? I work for a public policy organization whose job
The traditional budget process is also critical to maintaining leadership, by involving all legislators. North Carolina voters can only vote for legislators in their districts, not the leadership positions at the General Assembly. By allowing a select few legislators to craft budget changes through a conference report, legislative leaders have made some legislative districts more valuable than others. Furthermore, there are likely several members of both parties who feel that their voices have not been heard.
Many of the problems currently exist in our nation’s capital came about because Congress stopped passing the budget in “regular order.” The lack of transparency and ramming budgets through Congress has helped to exacerbate our federal debt crisis, now over $30 trillion. The North Carolina General Assembly has stepped away from the traditional short session process twice now, and things like this tend to turn into habits.
North Carolina taxpayers deserve to hear from Republican leaders that this non-process process is not the norm.
Donald Bryson is president and chief strategy officer of the John Locke Foundation.