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Sunday, May 1, 2011

With House budget, Republican priorities are on the charge

Posted by on Sun, May 1, 2011 at 12:21 PM

The proposed GOP House budget doesn't so much cut as it legislates, slicing up programs, moving things around, challenging executive branch powers and starting the general remake of state government Republicans promised last November.

The House's response to Gov. Bev Perdue's budget proposal, scheduled for a vote this week, would mean no more teachers assistants in second and third grades. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources would become more "business friendly," which you can read more about here.

Planned Parenthood? Banned by name, in capital letters, from any state funding, or federal funding that runs through the state.

You'd pay 3/4 of a penny less sales tax if the House gets it's way, and the governor doesn't. There's a package of other tax cuts coming, likely for small businesses, and maybe for corporate and personal income tax filers. But the details haven't been announced yet.

Beyond the tax cuts, there are tax shifts, by a number of names. There are new user fees, including about $90 million in new court fees. Foreclosures would cost twice as much. Taking the GED once would cost $25, instead of $7.50. Taking it a second time would cost $25 again, instead of being free.

North Carolina's we're-a-little-better-than-y'all reputation for higher education would take a hit, with $217 million less for universities than the governor requested. Community college tuition would go up $10 a credit hour.

Now, here's the thing: This budget is not going to pass ... probably. But we'll get to that in a moment.

The House would cut more textbook money than Perdue, but it includes more money to buy school buses and pay drivers.

I hope you don't like trains, though, because the legislature is taking about rejecting hundreds of millions in federal passenger rail funds, and the budget sets them up to do it.

Also less important: Clean water, to the tune of a 90 percent cut to the "clean water management trust fund." House budget writers are all over the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in general, moving things around, moving them out, making them cost less, making them justify their existence and eliminating some local inspectors.

Campaign finance oversight would move from the State Board of Elections to the State Ethics Commission. So would lobbyist registration, now handled by the Secretary of State. And, if this bill passes, the General Assembly would get more power over those functions by controlling a majority of appointments to the ethics commission's board.

The governor would also have to come to the legislature more often, proverbial hat in hand, to fund a single new position and distribute various grants.

There's a move to give new statewide arrest powers to the General Assembly police (see paragraph 11). One part of that bill turns a General Assembly policeman into a regular cop, in any part of the state, so long as he or she is traveling with a legislator on official business.

If this was 2009, and Speaker of the House Thom Tillis was Barack Obama, these cops would be known as "Brownshirts."

We'd get a study on vehicle inspections in the House budget, to decide whether cars up to 3 years old really need a $67 state inspection. We'd get a new online database of state grants and incentive recipients, to be produced by the Department of Commerce.

Starting in 2012, state mental health, developmental disability and substance abuse services would require co-pays based on Medicaid co-pay rates.

Both the House and the governor want to end dropout prevention grants. But if you want to hate on the governor's budget, that's another column. This one, in fact.

This whole fight is over $800 million from that 3/4 penny sales tax, and a shift to a Republican philosophy laid out many times in the run-up to last year's game-changing elections. Perdue and a handful House Democrats stand in the way of these relatively massive changes, because the GOP majority is four House votes shy of overturning the governor's vetoes.

That is, 68 of 120 House seats are held by Republicans, and it takes 72 votes to overturn a veto. Republicans are already veto-proof in the Senate.

So they're four votes shy and looking, presumably, to convince a handful of conservative Democrats that North Carolina is now a Republican state, and it's time to get on board. Four votes shy and redrawing election districts this year based on the recent census, a process that can save, or destroy, a politician's career, and one that's not subject to veto.

For the most part the Democratic caucus has held together this session. But if any of them are going to bolt, budget time will be the time to do it.

If that happens, it's new ball game yet again. If not, well that brings me to John Hood, who works for The John Locke Foundation via The Carolina Journal, which I understand if you don't trust. But Mr. Hood knows what he's talking about:

Now the budget fight will begin in earnest. North Carolinians are about to hear a great deal of sound and fury. I won’t say all the sound and fury will signify nothing. That would be an overstatement. But to say the differences (between Perdue and Republicans) are irreconcilable would also be an overstatement.

Here’s what I think will happen. Perdue is on course to veto the first plan the GOP legislature presents her. Then the two sides will negotiate. The most likely outcome? Meeting in the middle, at a 6 percent overall cut. The GOP budget contains enough wiggle room — unspent revenue or other potential fee hikes — to make that deal possible without the sales-tax hike.

The GOP plan also includes a lot more money for various state retirement funds than the governor proposed. With a recent study saying the state's pension system is well funded, that may also give the two sides breathing room as they consider a compromise.

But how, and whether, this all shakes out will be one of the primary issues — if not the primary issue — of a massive 2012 election cycle. Between the governor's race, legislative races and a presidential race likely to have North Carolina front-and-center, we'll learn an awful lot about state's long-term political trajectory.

If you're not budgeted-out yet, I also wrote about this, with a few more numbers and a little less flair, for the Winston-Salem Journal.

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