The Follies of the inadequate, spiteful and scandalous budget

The Follies of the inadequate, spiteful and scandalous budget

- in Fitzsimon File

Republican legislative leaders are desperately trying to shift the focus off the details of their mean-spirted and inadequate budget by absurdly demanding that Governor Roy Cooper sign it, trying to make the governor the issue instead of the stunningly bad decisions lawmakers made.

GOP talking points include a call for Cooper to keep his word, alleging that the budget fulfills most of what Cooper laid out as his priorities for the two-year spending plan.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger directly addressed Cooper in his remarks at a Thursday news conference with the help of poster boards with a list of what he said were Cooper’s promises and how the budget fulfilled them.

House Rules Chair David Lewis repeatedly said “sign this bill” governor in his remarks on the House floor Thursday afternoon.

But it is all but certain that Cooper will veto the budget bill, not sign it. Lawmakers gave him little choice.

Not only did the budget continue to give more tax windfalls to corporations and the wealthy and invest far less in education, protecting the environment and economic development than Cooper recommended, it spitefully slashed the budget of Cooper’s office by almost a million dollars.

Attorney General Josh Stein’s office fared even worse. Republicans cut $10 million from the Department of Justice that Stein heads and limited where he could make the cuts, leaving Stein to point out that the reductions would force him to lay off 123 attorneys who help keep North Carolina safe and consumers protected.

The unprecedented and blatantly partisan budget slashing was not in the House or Senate budgets. It came out of nowhere, added in the secret backroom negotiations between legislative leaders. Berger stunningly defended the cuts to the Attorney General’s office by saying he didn’t like the way Stein was doing his job.

Stein was elected by the people of North Carolina to do his job, not to please legislative bosses.

Think of the precedent here.  Berger is in effect saying that all statewide elected officials have to please him or pay the price in the budget.  Of course, Stein and Cooper are not the ones who will suffer, the people of North Carolina are.

It is a sad commentary on the state of things in North Carolina that Berger and his cronies are willing to jeopardize public safety and consumer welfare purely out of political spite.

Rep. Lewis ridiculously defended to the cuts to the Department of Justice by saying he was willing to stand on any street corner in any legislative district in North Carolina and say that the Attorney General’s office should be able to run fine with the $81 million appropriated in the budget.

The silly, out-of-context claim means nothing. The General Assembly’s operating budget is roughly $67 million after a $2.5 million increase this year.

It is probably a safe bet that anyone could go to Lewis’s district, stand on the corner, and say that the General Assembly should be able to operate with $20 million and people would shake their heads in agreement.

That’s a lot of money Rep. Lewis. Surely you can run the legislature on $20 million.

The numbers out of context mean nothing.  The context in this case is that Lewis, Berger, and the rest of the GOP lawmakers are forcing Stein to fire 123 attorneys who work every day for the people of North Carolina.

And finally, beyond the latest round of tax breaks for millionaires, shameful spiteful budget cuts, and dozens of bad provisions like ending funding for legal services for low-income people, this budget is memorable for what can only be called the Berger/Moore slush fund.

Sen. Berger and House Speaker Moore and their lieutenants went behind closed doors and at the last minutes doled out $100 million in taxpayer money that was in neither the House nor Senate budgets. They picked out nonprofits in certain counties to reward allies and try to gain others and to take care of their own communities.

Some of the decisions were like items from The Onion, most notably giving a “downtown revitalization grant” to an unincorporated area in Moore’s district that has no downtown to revitalize.

This is public money after all. Rep. Nelson Dollar, the head of the House budget committee, tried to defend the slush fund projects by claiming that Democrats should support helping rural North Carolina.

But Dollar’s heart wasn’t really in it. He knows that hiding out in the corner office of the Legislative Office Building doling out slush fund money in secret to reward his allies does not pass any sort of common sense test of how the General Assembly should work.

No wonder Republicans are trying get the media to focus on Cooper. The budget they passed not only continues their Robin Hood in reverse tax changes while woefully underinvesting in education, health care and environmental protections—it’s spiteful and literally scandalous as well.

I’d be trying to divert attention from it too.