Home Opinion OPINION: Stop the budget games

OPINION: Stop the budget games

Once again North Carolina won’t have a revised budget at the start of the new fiscal year, July 1. Revising and updating the budget passed in 2023 was their primary task when the General Assembly convened in Raleigh April 24.

Legislators are playing budget games. They are reportedly some $312 million apart in the $31 billion spending plan. When asked what was standing in the way of resolution, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger answered, “Pork.” We understand the House wants to give additional pay increases to teachers and state employees from what was approved last year. The Senate doesn’t.

Instead of resolving their differences our lawmakers are going home. Some suggest they will return in August or September, unless votes are needed to overrule Governor Cooper’s four vetoes. They certainly won’t adjourn “sine die” (meaning for good this year), awaiting the outcome of November’s elections. Remember when Roy Cooper defeated Pat McCrory in 2016 and the legislature convened to eliminate powers from the governor? It could happen again.

There are legitimate reasons for revising the budget. Teacher turnover is 11.5% and pay is a primary reason for their leaving. We also have personnel shortages among state troopers, prison employees and in many other state agencies.

The 2023 budget wasn’t approved until Oct. 2, two months after the fiscal year started. It was Nov. 15, 2021 when a budget was finally passed, the first formally approved since 2018. For three years the legislature and governor were in continuous battles and no new budget was enacted. Having a new budget at the beginning of a new year isn’t uncommon.

Budget delays are unfair to state employees and to projects and programs in which the state undertakes. It’s a lousy way to run the $31 billion state enterprise.

Since our lawmakers are considering proposing constitutional amendments on voting, let’s consider some others.

We could do as many states and set fixed terms for legislative sessions. Georgia sets session limits to 40 days per year. Seven states have session limits at 60 days. One state only allows for 60 days over two years. Four other states have 90-day limits, with Tennessee terminating legislative pay at 90 days.

We would propose that North Carolina have session limits fixed at 100 session days over a two-year term. After that time, legislative pay and benefits stop, hopefully an incentive to lawmakers to get their work done and go home. Special sessions could be called only by the governor, only for a specific purpose and length, like passing a budget.

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While in a change mode let’s put some amendments in place to eliminate career lawmakers. Phil Berger has served 23 years in the Senate and has been Senate leader for 13 years. Sen. Dan Blue has served more than 30 years and others serve for decades. North Carolina won’t allow the governor to serve but eight years. Why should we allow lawmakers unlimited tenure?

We would amend the constitution so that legislative terms consisted of four years instead of two, with no legislator allowed more than three four-year terms. This would ensure new faces, new ideas and new leadership.

It’s no wonder our legislature is comprised mostly of retired, independently wealthy or people who work for companies with special interests in legislative matters. Most people can’t afford to serve, and few employers are willing to allow employees to miss huge chunks of the year in Raleigh.

We must pay lawmakers better. North Carolina currently pays legislators $13,951 per year plus reimbursement of 29 cents mile, per diem expenses of $104 during legislative sessions and $559 per month for office and administrative expenses. We are well below most states except South Carolina which only pays $10,400, Texas at $7,200 and New Mexico, which doesn’t pay their legislators anything. A few pay $60,000, $80,000 or $100,000 or more. We get what we pay for!

Winning a legislative seat generally requires spending a minimum of $150,000 for a job that only pays $14,000. Can you see the problem? Lawmakers must depend on contributions to get elected. But who contributes? Mostly PACs, special interest groups, the wealthy and, even though it is illegal, corporate bundling of contributions.

This leads into needing stricter campaign finance laws, restricting the amount individuals, corporations and PACs can contribute to candidates. And let’s eliminate the unlimited “in kind” contributions that political parties can spend on behalf of candidates. North Carolina can’t change federal laws, but we can tighten down on ours.

Let’s also move primary elections to June (as many states do), with the General election in November. If we can’t eliminate how much is being spent, at least we can shorten the length of time it is being spent.

Incumbents serving in our legislature won’t likely agree to any of these changes but if we want better government in North Carolina changes are needed.

Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965.
Contact him at tomcamp@carolinabroadcasting.com.