Time to study 508 page budget

| July 1, 2015

Patrick Gannonby Patrick Gannon, The Insider, June 29, 2015.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the average bill that passes the General Assembly is about four pages long. That probably not exactly correct, but it’s probably not far off.

If it’s true, that means the 508-page budget passed by the Senate contains the equivalent of about 127 pieces of legislation all rolled into one bill. In comparison, the budget passed by the House included 329 pages of so-called “special provisions” – fewer, but still a lot.

To put the size and scope of the Senate budget into perspective, 117 bills have become law in North Carolina in roughly five months since the legislative session began in January.

And while many changes in the Senate proposal aren’t a big deal, others are far-reaching and extremely controversial. There’s a major change in the way sales tax revenues are distributed among counties and cities, which would help some areas and hurt others. There’s a complete overhaul of the way Medicaid is organized and administered – spanning about 20 pages in the budget. There’s a proposed new annual fee for boats greater than 24 feet that operate along the coast. And the Senate budget includes about 45 pages of changes to tax and incentives laws, including modifications to how corporate and individual taxes are calculated and further reductions to corporate tax rates in 2016 and 2017.

Therein lies the problem. Including all of those changes to state law in one bill ensures a few things. It ensures that most, if not all, of the provisions will receive less public debate and scrutiny than if they were considered as separate pieces of legislation. It also ensures that much of the discussion among legislators about the budget provisions will be conducted behind closed doors as House and Senate members negotiate the differences between the two chambers’ plans and come up with a compromise. And it ensures that at least several provisions will become law that wouldn’t have passed if they were put up for votes as standalone bills outside of the budget process.

The House is doing the right thing by holding committee meetings to review and ask questions about the behemoth Senate budget. The House Finance Committee has called meetings to examine the tax, fee and incentives provisions. And House budget committees are getting together to take separate looks at various budget areas, such as education, justice and public safety and transportation. Rep. Jason Saine, a Republican from Lincolnton and a co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, deemed the Senate’s proposed changes to tax laws “very serious.”

“Really, we’ve got to get to an understanding of what’s been sent to us,” he said. “It’s incredibly complicated. Even staff at some times has a bit of trouble explaining it to us. We want to make sure to get this right, so we’ll take the time necessary.”

Senate leaders can say what they want about how most language in the budget is somehow related to spending and therefore belongs in it. But it seems lazy and undemocratic to try to ram through complex and controversial changes with one vote.

We should all hope the House continues its effort to understand what’s in the Senate budget before it agrees to include its provisions in the state’s final spending plan.

It’s pretty clear that many senators voted for or against the Senate budget without fully understanding potential impacts of parts of it. House leaders shouldn’t let that happen again, even if that means we’re here until Christmas, which already is a running joke around the legislative complex.

Category: NC SPIN Perspectives - Opinions from NC Leaders & Organizations

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