Deadlines in politics have a way of being ignored, usually at additional cost to the governed. That’s the case with North Carolina’s budgetary process. Today is the last day of the fiscal year, and if legislators were going to implement a new budget to replace the old one and avoid a number of problems that leaving the old in place will trigger, they should have done it already. Or at least they should have it done by the end of business today. Don’t hold your breath.
House and Senate leaders may be further apart on a budget deal today than they were when this short session began months ago. Short of a last-minute deal, the old budget will remain legally in effect until they come up with a compromise. They can stay in session to negotiate, which seems likely. They can also give up and go home, which would be unfortunate, though it would save taxpayers tens of thousands for each day they aren’t in session without making progress.
At the heart of their differences is Medicaid funding, though it’s also become intertwined with teacher pay and staffing levels for teacher assistants. Senators have complained that estimates for Medicaid costs come in too low each year and want to set aside more money to handle that problem. Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget director, Art Pope, has said that’s unnecessary and a bad idea. Allotting so much for Medicaid will force the state to slash positions for teaching assistants, who can’t easily be rehired if the funding emerges later. Pope and state House leaders favor a more modest sum for Medicaid than can be adjusted out of state reserve funds later if necessary.
The Senate also wants to offer heftier increases in teacher salaries than the House and governor, which would only make the cuts for teaching assistants deeper. While the House’s approach – modest teacher raises, modest funds set aside for Medicaid and no reduction in teaching assistants – makes the most sense, negotiations might identify some additional ways out of the conundrum.
But instead of trying to reach a workable compromise, both sides seem to be busy getting their egos injured and vying in lame attempts to score political points with a public that’s not really paying attention.
This year, as much as any, points to serious problems with our budget system in North Carolina. We shouldn’t leave so much in limbo at the 11th hour.
Maybe they can tackle the system during the next session. For now, let’s hope they can pass a decent budget.