I feel a bit like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football with Lucy holding. In 2023, the word on Jones Street was that state legislators would come into session in January, work on the state budget early, pass the budget before June 30, and be done with the legislative session by Independence Day. Yet here we are in late July with no budget and reported deadlock between the two legislative chambers. Most North Carolina political observers are quietly saying, “I’ve seen this movie before.”
And while it can be frustrating when political processes seem to repeat themselves and promises of timely and efficient budgeting need to be fulfilled, our current situation is not uncommon. It reflects the complexities and challenges of the legislative process, especially when passing a state budget for a large state with a politically divided government. Budgets are not just about numbers; they also reflect policy choices. Differences over specific policy provisions, funding for certain programs, or changes to existing laws can lead to prolonged negotiations and delays in reaching a consensus. Additionally, economic uncertainties, unforeseen emergencies, or changes in revenue projections can impact budget negotiations.
Fortunately, legislative leaders only have to look a few years into the past to contrive a solution for their budget impasse — mini-budgets.
In 2019, the North Carolina General Assembly passed several “mini-budget” bills. These mini-budget bills aimed to fund core government services within the state rather than passing a single comprehensive budget. The bills included funding for various sectors such as healthcare, education, and transportation. In 2019, these mini-budget bills were passed by the Republican-led General Assembly through a series of votes, forcing Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to take on issues individually rather than veto the budget as a whole.
Budget negotiators in the state House and Senate agree on many budgetary issues related to core government services, including teacher pay and universalizing the Opportunity Scholarship Program, and were already close in their appropriations for the University System, Justice and Public Safety, and executive departments such as Agriculture, Commerce, and Labor. These appropriations could now be funded through mini-budget bills and let the state government move ahead with its core services.
This approach allows for a more targeted allocation of resources, ensuring that taxpayer money is spent efficiently on essential services rather than funding unrelated or wasteful programs. It can help prevent excessive government spending, which is a risk when state government is as cash-heavy as it currently is, and provides assurances to conservative taxpayers who prioritize fiscal responsibility.
This approach could also work politically for legislative Republicans. With mini-budgets, each sector’s funding is subject to separate votes, making it easier for citizens, the press, and legislators to understand how taxpayer money is allocated and spent in specific areas. This increased transparency can help hold elected officials accountable for their budgetary decisions, including what Gov. Cooper decides to sign or veto. If the governor disagrees with certain aspects of the education-focused mini-budget, he must carefully weigh the potential consequences of vetoing the bill. Vetoing a mini-budget that includes funding essential services like education could be politically sensitive and may draw criticism from constituents. Perhaps that “state of emergency” for public education will seem unwise when he is confronted with a bill that offers teacher pay raises and more educational freedom to families.
Mini-budgets are not the ideal situation. This scenario should only be done and only works when there is an apparent budget impasse, and the General Assembly has other timely business to attend — like redistricting this fall. The ideal situation is what I described at the beginning: legislators come into session in January, work on the state budget early, pass the budget before the June 30 end of the fiscal year, and finish the legislative session by Independence Day.
In the past, I have been critical of the General Assembly departing from the traditional budget process. However, that was over the need for more transparency and input from more legislators on the state’s funding priorities. In truth, both chambers of the General Assembly have done their due diligence in passing budgets through regular order and vetting appropriations through various sub-committees. The North Carolina General Assembly’s budget process is a gold standard compared with the unseriousness we now see in Congress when it comes to either party showing fiscal discipline. The problem legislative leaders now have is simply a matter of well-meaning legislators having meaningful differences of opinion on public policy. As they did in 2019, passing mini-budgets could be a remedy to work past some of the pressure and assure the public that core services will continue unabated.