Myth of Bipartisanship, and Lack of Accountability

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1st Day of Session Exposes The Myth of Bipartisanship

To hear some people talk, opening day in the Senate ushered in a new era of bipartisan cooperation. The failure of the press to report the events of opening day certainly supported that illusion.

Since the majority of the Republican caucus was supporting Marc Basnight's re-election as President Pro Tem, they thought he might be receptive to their desire for a few changes in the Senate rules and so they shared them with him in advance. Unfortunately, he was not very receptive.

Their first proposal was a request to permit the use of laptop computers on the Senate floor as is permitted in the House. We were told that would be studied. It is still being studied. I have, however, found the absence isn't as irritating as I expected, since there is so little debate on the Senate floor that time in session is minimal.

Another amendment dealt with debate. Right now, a majority vote can cut off debate on a bill, not just on the day of the vote to end debate but on all subsequent days of session. For example, when the Democrats tired of the budget debate this year, they cut off debate not just for that day but also for third reading on the subsequent day. We asked that each day stand alone but were outvoted.

My favorite amendment dealt with the irritating use of last minute “proposed committee substitutes.” Too often, after studying the bill before committee, I would get to committee and be handed a completely new bill for discussion. The amendment offered required that any committee substitute had to be provided the day before or any member could ask for a day to study the new bill.

Since the amendment had been shared, the Democrats were ready with an alternate amendment that said bills should be furnished a day ahead, but if a majority wanted to waive that requirement, there was no need to wait. Since the Democrats hold a majority on every committee, I offered as a compromise that two-thirds should be required. That way one or two people couldn't hold things up, but if over a third of the committee wanted time to read a bill that was sprung on them at the last minute, they could have it.

My proposal was rejected, which didn't surprise me.

Revenue Up 7.2%. Oops! Tax Hikers Estimated 8.6%

If all I knew was what I read in the papers, I'd think North Carolina was in horrible financial condition with tax revenue down substantially. After all, we just had a huge shortfall in March and April tax collections.

What the people pushing for higher taxes have failed to mention is the FACT that, according to the General Assembly's fiscal staff, actual general fund revenue collections for this fiscal year are up 7.2% compared to the same period ( July through April) in the prior fiscal year. How many of the people paying the taxes enjoyed a 7.2% raise last year? Not many, I'd bet. I know teachers and state employees sure didn't get that kind of raise, and I don't think many others did either.

Similarly, if all I knew was what I read in the papers, I'd think the legislature was doing a great job by passing a House and Senate budget so quickly. Once again, the real story is nothing like the spin.

Everyone in the legislature knew or should have known that the revenue estimates being used by the House and Senate budget writers were wildly optimistic. The goal of the leaders in both Houses of the legislature was to pass a budget, any budget would do, to get the issue into the back rooms with their handpicked conferees before the extent of the overestimate became too obvious. They needed to beat the April revenue numbers and they did.

Earlier this year I filed a bill, S44, to end the use of estimates in budget preparation. I did that because I had become convinced the legislature cannot be trusted to use real numbers for budgeting when they are permitted to use wild estimates. If the prior years' fiascos haven't convinced the public of this, this year's sick joke of a budget should.

Families don't base their budget on a raise they hope to get. Why should government be permitted to make up numbers so they can plan to spend more than is there?

Any business that handled budgeting like the state of North Carolina would long since have been out of business. How long will the public permit the legislature to plan to spend more than is remotely reasonable and then demand higher taxes to make up the planned shortfall?

Grants or Gifts? Who Knows? Worse Yet, Dems Don't Care

Believe it or not, I come from a family of Democrats and have a lot of friends who, for reasons that escape me, are still Democrats. For that reason, I try to exercise some restraint in using party labels. Unfortunately, the defining moment of this year's budget debate was starkly partisan and generally unreported.

When I returned home the week we passed the budget, the local paper had a front page headline challenging the propriety of the County spending $14,903 on sending a number of people to a meeting held in Washington DC. The press had all of the receipts, and they were properly questioning some pretty small items.

I called the editor and told him there was an even bigger story in Raleigh. North Carolina's government gives out $20 million a year in grants under $15,000 and we don't even ask the receipients to tell us how the money is spent. Grants of $15,000 and up are required to be reported. (Even though some of those receipients don't report, at least they are supposed to report. See for details.)

Senator Hamilton Horton offered an amendment that would require recipients of grants under $15,000 to tell the state how the money was spent. After all, if we give someone five or ten thousand dollars, you'd think they could afford a postage stamp to mail us a copy of their check register or something.

Every Democrat in the Senate voted against the amendment. In fact, the body was startled when the vote was originally tied 25-25 and Lt. Governor Beverly Perdue had to break the tie, which she did, voting against the amendment. Then the Democrats figured out which of their members had hit the “wrong” button and got them to change their votes so the Lt. Governor could withdraw her vote. Still, she had cast it, just like every other Democrat in the Senate, to keep handing out tax dollars with no idea how they are actually spent.

Why don't the Democrats want to know how grant money (or should I say gift money?) is spent? Do they already have a pretty good idea of where some of it goes?

No wonder the state stays broke. It is hard to fill a bucket when it leaks like a sieve.

Portfolios Revisited . . .3rd Try May Be The Charm

Efforts to end the portfolio requirement for teacher certification fell short in 2001 and 2002, but it looks like we may ( repeat may ) be successful this year. With help from Senator Tony Rand ( whose wife is a former teacher ), Senate Bill 931 sailed through the Senate 48-1 (the 1 was Wib Gulley) on the last possible day when it became clear the similar bill in the House ( H1012 ) would not make crossover. (By the way, Senator Rand is a Democrat, but credit should be given when it is deserved and on this, in all fairness, he deserves some credit.)

The Senate bill is scheduled for a hearing in the House Education Committee Tuesday May 13 at 11AM. Since H1012 received a favorable report from that committee, S931 should receive a favorable report as well. If it does, and if S931 is passed by the House, that will be the end of portfolios.

If all goes well, the next Raleigh Report may chronicle the end of the portfolio requirement.

Budget Expands Authority to Borrow Without Vote

The last part of this year's budget included several pages of “creative financing” provisions. Apparently people are beginning to wise up to the fact that bond is just another word for borrow, so legislative leaders hope to avoid the Constitutional requirement for a bond referendum on general obligation debt by devising new means of borrowing. I offered an amendment to remove this part, but the amendment was rejected as expected.

I wondered how California managed to run up a deficit bigger than our entire budget, a deficit so big that if they fired every state employee from teacher to highway patrolman, they'd still be $7 billion in the hole. Now I know. Unfortunately, NC is now on their path. Scary.

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