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About this time in the legislative session — when the session runs interminably long and little is happening — the press corps, lobbyists, legislative staffers and even some lawmakers start a pool to predict how long the session might last before adjournment.
Currently, Halloween seems a pretty safe bet. I think it was 2016 when folks were decorating Christmas trees; it didn’t look like they would ever adjourn. But all this hemming and hawing comes at a price. You and I, the taxpayers, are spending about $850,000 per month to keep this circus in Raleigh and it’s fair to ask whether we are getting our money’s worth.
When the General Assembly convened the 2021 session on Jan. 13, it was scheduled to adjourn July 2. Our lawmakers had three primary tasks — passing a new biennial state budget, drawing new districts for congressional, legislative and local government elections, and appropriating a large accumulated surplus. Today, they’ve been meeting eight months and in baseball parlance they are 0-for-3.
They haven’t passed a budget, drawn districts or acted on the bulk of the surplus, other than saying they want to put a large amount of it into savings. Yes, they’ve passed a few laws and tackled a few subjects better left alone, such as rewriting North Carolina history instruction for our schools and limiting gubernatorial powers during emergencies.
I think we are seeing why we need someone who can act quickly in times of crisis. The legislature certainly doesn’t.
North Carolina has a $6-plus billion surplus, with millions more accumulating each month. There are many significant ways we could be spending it. For starters, we should guarantee every schoolroom in our state is COVID-safe and make sure we have enough remedial help for our children. Our economy has recovered nicely from the pandemic but some wise and timely investments could stimulate our labor force participation rate, which is still well below pre-pandemic levels.
Even legislative leadership acknowledges it might be October before a conference budget is sent to the governor. My research indicates the latest a final budget was approved was in 1998, on Oct. 30. Unless there are substantive negotiations and compromises taking place with Governor Cooper’s office, anything similar to the respective budgets from the two chambers will quickly get the big red veto stamp. Overriding the veto requires a three-fifths vote — 30 votes in the Senate and 72 in the House.
It’s hard to tell what’s going on so far as redistricting is concerned. It’s all behind closed doors. Some say lawmakers have already drawn the maps, even before the 10 hearings are held to get public input. And in a state as large as ours, having only 10 hearings is a farce, especially in the locations selected. In 2011 there were 30 hearings scheduled.
This is no way to run a state. If our legislators were your employees in a $30-plus billion enterprise, you would be an unhappy camper.
Wait, they are your employees.
Here are some ways to improve state governance.
First, we need a constitutional amendment limiting legislative sessions. Thirty-nine states have them; most are 60 to 90 days instead of our open-ended session lengths. Let’s raise legislative pay for those 100 days (and only 100 days) to a level where working-class citizens can serve instead of just the wealthy, retirees and special interest advocates. Then let’s put pressure on legislators to get a budget passed in time to start of the new year (July 1) by repealing the law that allows the state to continue operating using the previous year’s budget until a new one is approved.
If state government was shut down, you can bet we would get some action. We would also insist every program and agency undergo a zero-based budget process every four to six years, with required public legislative hearings.
While we are reforming let’s make legislative terms four years instead of two, set term limits of 16 years for members and six years for legislative leadership. We should require an independent redistricting commission and restore balance of appointive powers, especially allowing the governor to make appointments to our UNC Board of Governors.
Here’s my spin: We get the government we expect and demand. If we are not getting the government we want we have the power to change it at the ballot box, especially if there are fairly drawn districts.
Tom Campbell is a former assistant N.C. State Treasurer and was the creator/host of N.C. SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of N.C. issues that aired on UNC-TV until 2020. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.