Democracy (and Light Rail) Dies in Darkness | Soapboxer | Indy Week
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Democracy (and Light Rail) Dies in Darkness 

It's impossible to defend state Representative Mickey Michaux's comparison of the legislature's budget process to rape for the same reason that it's impossible to defend comparing anything to rape. Nothing is rape except rape. Civil rights icon though the Durham Democrat may be, Michaux screwed up, and then compounded that screw-up by refusing to apologize.

But it's also impossible not to understand the frustration underlying that comment. What the General Assembly's Republicans did last week was emblematic of the kind of opaque, backroom, zero-sum politics that has given Congress its sub-basement approval ratings. Following a massive teacher demonstration on May 16 and fearing that Democrats would force uncomfortable votes on things like improved teacher pay, school safety, and tax cuts for the rich, a handful of Republicans cobbled together the budget behind closed doors—with input from special interests but no elected Democrats (or even most Republicans)—then rammed it through without allowing any amendments.

It was a breathtaking affront to democratic norms, although perhaps nothing out of the ordinary for the Trump era. But it did allow Republicans a chance to seize the political high ground. Now they can run campaign ads this fall asking why Democrats voted against raising teacher salaries 6.5 percent, rather than having to defend votes against Democratic amendments to raise teacher pay higher than that, as Governor Cooper proposed, by eliminating tax breaks for the wealthy.

And that's why people hate politics.

But when sweeping policies are enacted behind closed doors, without substantive debate, they can often lead to unintended consequences—or, less charitably, intended consequences dressed up as accidents. Such was the case with a single sentence on page 179 of the 267-page budget, which, if not repealed, all but dooms the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project.

The sentence—"A light rail project is ineligible for scoring, prioritization, and State funding until a written agreement is provided ... establishing that all non-State funding necessary to construct the project has been secured"—doesn't say as much, not explicitly. Rather, it says the state won't fund its share of the project's costs—as much as $247 million, though probably less—until the federal government kicks in its share, about $1.2 billion, or half of the total project cost.

The problem: By law, the feds can't pay up until local and state authorities have all of their funding secured. Effectively, this creates a catch-22 in which the state won't commit funds until the feds do, but the feds can't commit funds until the state does, and around we go.

The Republicans claim this wasn't their plan. They just wanted to ensure that the state didn't dump money into a project that was going nowhere. But their budget process didn't offer an opportunity for amendments, just a yes-no vote, so there was no chance to remove or alter this provision—or even to debate its implications.

Before we go further, I should mention that I'm ambivalent about the DOLRT and skeptical of its ridership projections. But that aside, it's clear that the project has widespread local support—every local official is fully behind it, and Durham and Orange Counties have already spent about $148 million on it.

And it's also clear the GOP's motives aren't really about fiscal responsibility. Never mind the fact that the budget is loaded with pork, including handouts to anti-abortion groups, a Christian hunting club, a proselytizing prison ministry, and a YMCA in Onslow County. Focus on the stunningly obvious point that there are myriad other ways for the state to ensure it's not throwing good money after bad without strangling the project in its cradle. The legislature could, for instance, simply say the state won't distribute funds without a federal commitment, instead of saying it won't even evaluate the project without it.

And it's important to note that commuter-rail projects in Wake and Mecklenburg Counties weren't targeted—though, according to state Representative Verla Insko, an Orange County Democrat, they originally were. However, she told the Herald-Sun, Republicans pulled that provision to protect vulnerable Wake and Mecklenburg Republicans in a tough election year. There are no Republicans representing Durham or Orange in the legislature, and that's not a coincidence.

If Insko is correct—and everything about the way Republicans have comported themselves since taking power suggests she is—then the motives here are obvious: With their supermajorities threatened in November, Republicans had in this budget one last chance to whack Durham and Orange progressives for the hell of it. And, to my eyes, that's just what they did: They killed light rail because they could.

Now, local leaders are scrambling to get lawmakers to fix it. Durham County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs, a member of the GoTriangle Board of Directors, says "high-level leaders" in the General Assembly want to help, via a "technical correction"—a way for legislators to say that what's in the budget isn't what they actually meant.

Of course, this last-ditch strategy assumes that the budget's language isn't, in fact, exactly what they meant.

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