As General Assembly moves toward finalizing a budget, will Democrats have a say?

Posted 9/8/21

RALEIGH — North Carolina’s General Assembly and governor appear closer to passing a comprehensive state budget than they’ve been in four years, but reports of renewed bipartisanship …

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As General Assembly moves toward finalizing a budget, will Democrats have a say?

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Posted

RALEIGH — North Carolina’s General Assembly and governor appear closer to passing a comprehensive state budget than they’ve been in four years, but reports of renewed bipartisanship oversimplify the negotiations process, according to Chatham legislators.

The state budget is now more than two months late after the fiscal year renewed in June and the General Assembly’s chambers have yet to reach a compromise in their respective budget proposals. But at least two facts make adoption of this year’s budget more likely than in years past: the Senate and House of Representatives have agreed on a total spending figure, $25.7 billion; and each Republican-dominant chamber passed its budget version with enough Democratic support to constitute a supermajority, which could, in theory, override a governor veto.

If the budget becomes law, it would be the first complete spending plan since the 2017 session. In 2019 (state budgets are biennial) Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the General Assembly’s proposal and the latter had too few votes to override him. Several piecemeal budgets were passed in its stead according to the previous budget’s total spending level. As a result, tens of thousands of state employees — including teachers — were not afforded raises, potential tax cuts were deferred and many state construction projects went unfunded.

But politicians on both sides of the aisle have resolved to avoid that workaround this year.

“I think all of us on every side, every part of leadership in both chambers, including the governor, are very hopeful that the budget bill that is sent to him for his signature or veto is a bill that he’ll be able to sign,” Chatham Rep. Robert Reives II (D-Dist. 54) told the News + Record. “I think we’re all very hopeful for that.”

Since the budget process began, Republicans in the Senate and House vowed to include their colleagues across the aisle more than in previous sessions.

“There has been an incredible commitment from the majority, in both the Senate and the House leadership, to try to work in a better manner towards compromise,” Reives said.

But that’s not to say Democrats played much of a role in drafting each chamber’s proposal, he added, as some reports have suggested.

“I’ve read some things that sound like Democrats have had a hand in this from the start,” Reives said. “Is it true that (Republicans) have stated that they plan to involve the Governor at an earlier stage? Yes. But is it accurate to say the Democrats have been involved in the crafting of the budget to a greater extent than before? Absolutely not.”

Democrats on the Senate floor have felt similarly detached until recently.

“I haven’t seen a huge difference in the process compared to past years,” Sen. Valerie Foushee (D-Dist. 23), who represents Chatham and Orange counties, told the News + Record.

The general timbre of discussion, however, has been more civil than in previous budget sessions.

“I think what may be feeding into that idea that we’ve been working together is that it has not been a negative process,” Foushee said. “You haven’t heard any real bickering. But the Senate passed a budget that only four Democrats voted for, so I don’t know why that would appear that there was more Democratic support. And in the House I think nine Democrats voted for that budget, so I don’t know what would have anyone to believe that the process was more inclusive.”

The final stages of budget development may yield a more bipartisan effort, though, as the House and Senate work to settle on a “conference budget” — the legislature’s compromise between each chamber’s vision. In the conference stage, committees from both halves of the General Assembly and Gov. Cooper work together to shape a final budget.

The Senate committee includes four Democrats out of 24 members. The House committee has nine Democrats out of 47 members. They are all the same Democrats who voted in favor of their chambers’ original proposals. In the Senate, that includes Sen. Don Davis, Sen. Kirk deViere, Sen. Paul Lowe and Sen. Ben Clark; Democrats on the House conference committee include Rep. Cecil Brockman, Rep. Brian Farkas, Rep. Charles Graham, Rep. Howard Hunter III, Rep. Marvin Lucas, Rep. Garland Pierce, Rep. William Richardson, Rep. Shelly Willingham and Rep. Michael Wray.

“That the conference committees include Democratic members, that is something that did not happen in 2017,” Foushee said. “So that is different.”

Conference committees and Cooper are in the process of negotiating a final budget, but legislative leadership has suggested they will not likely finish before the end of September, as first reported by the News & Observer of Raleigh. In the meantime, state employee raises and other legislative policies remain unfunded. But it seems this year the stalemate will desist.

“I think part of what gives all of us hope is that you haven’t heard the rancor that you’ve heard in the past,” Foushee said. “You haven’t heard or seen lines drawn in the sand that, ‘If it doesn’t include this it’s not going anywhere and we’re not going to vote for it.’ That has not happened ... Those are the kinds of things that give me hope that we’re going to see a different process moving forward and as it relates to negotiations, I am optimistic that we’ll see a better final product.”

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

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