At the end of the session, ‘some like it the best’
‘“It is the same show, but they always make the ending a little bit different ‘— just to make it interesting,’” is what the folks who watch the NC General Assembly are saying this week.
After finally pushing through a compromise budget agreement last week, many important legislative leaders have left town to attend a national legislative conference. They left their colleagues to hold ‘skeleton’ sessions until they return next week to wrap up this year’s legislative session.
But there will be problems.
First of all, the state’s budget is out in the open for careful study this week. Most legislators did not have time to read carefully every provision of the compromise budget bill worked out in secret negotiations between senate and house leaders.
Giving all the legislators time to look at the final budget before they go home is dangerous. It is better for the leaders when they manage to adjourn as soon as possible after the budget is final.
If the legislature has adjourned when a legislator discovers a ‘problem’ with the budget and brings it to the leaders, the leaders have an easy answer. ‘“Oh, that’s too bad,’” they say. ‘“We’ll try to fix it next year.’”’ With that easy answer, they can move on to other things.
But, if the legislature is still in session the ‘“we’ll try to fix it next year’” answer will not satisfy every legislator.
‘“No,’” some of them will say. ‘“You can fix it this year, before we go home.’”
So, next week, watch to see which legislators are able to get their ‘problems’ fixed and what kind of delay and disruption the ‘fixing’ causes.
Another discomfort will plague the leaders during the next few days. Careful budget readers will find and list in detail the special expenditures that went to the leaders’ home areas and favorite projects, leaving their colleagues the responsibility of defending their special spending in public, but suffering grumbling among themselves as long as the session continues. If the grumbling should fester, there is a danger it could fuel a challenge to the leadership down the road.
The danger would be lessened if legislators were at home, not together in session.
During the week, we will learn more about these ‘special appropriations.’ The discretionary funds set aside for the leaders in previous budgets temporarily hid some special spending. But these discretionary funds suffered critical attention from the press. The new budget eliminated them ‘— at least apparently. But, during the next few days, legislators will learn about two things that might disturb them. First, they will hear about even more special spending projects. Second, they will learn about more items of discretionary spending tucked in the budgets of state agencies.
Whenever state agencies have discretionary funds, a legislative leader can influence the spending of it. Put yourself in the position of an agency head that gets a call from a legislative leader asking for ‘“help on this project that I am interested in.’” If you help the legislator, you know you have a call for help for your agency in next year’s budget. If you don’t help, you know you may have to pay a price for your independence.
Added to the budget review problems, the saga of the lottery will keep the legislative watchers on edge next week. The Senate leadership is only one voter away from passing a state lottery.
We will see if the Senate leaders have a few tricks up their sleeves, and if they really want to play them now or keep the lottery issue alive for one more campaign season.
I still remember what one of the wisest North Carolina political observers told me about the end of the legislative session. The late Jay Robinson lobbied the legislator as a vice president of the UNC system and as chair of the NC Board of Education.
Here is what he said about those last few days of the session, ‘“Oh, it is terrible. Everybody is telling lies, putting a knife in other peoples’ backs, running around and scrambling for the last dollar. It is just awful. But that is when I like it the best.’”
To comment on this article, e-mail DG Martin through Brian Clarey at firstname.lastname@example.org.