Why Cooper’s doomed budget veto was still very important

Why Cooper’s doomed budget veto was still very important

Presented with a new state budget that, whatever its occasional virtues, is mainly about easing tax burdens on the well-off while grinding opponents of legislative Republicans into the dirt, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper had little choice but to wield his veto stamp.

Those Republicans who crafted the budget tried to taunt Cooper into signing it, noting that it includes raises for teachers and some tax breaks for middle-income earners – priorities he favors.

But the governor kept in mind the larger picture and refused to endorse a budget fundamentally shaped by small-government, anti-tax ideology and relentless partisanship.

His veto message put the budget’s shortcomings in a nutshell – at least, its shortcomings as perceived by those of us more concerned about the adequacy of government programs than about helping the financially fortunate lower their tax bills.

The budget as enacted, Cooper said, “prioritizes tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations and shortchanges our workforce and schools at a pivotal time of growth.”

It “lacks structural integrity by failing to account for population growth, inflation and looming federal reductions.” Its tax plan, he said, will derail “promised teacher salary increases in future years, along with funding for early childhood education, community colleges and universities.”

Finally, he said, the budget hampers his own ability to “faithfully execute the laws” and violates the separation of powers. That may be for the courts to decide, but the pattern set by this General Assembly is clear: Ever since Cooper defeated Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in November, there has been a concerted effort to roll back his authority and limit his influence. The budget puts an exclamation point to that effort by whacking funds for Cooper to run his office by some 10 percent.

For principle’s sake

Given Republican majorities in the legislature, the governor surely knew his budget objections would be futile, as they quickly proved to be. His veto came on June 27. That same day, the Senate voted to override, as a unified Republican bloc easily surpassed the required three-fifths margin.

The House on June 28 followed suit. So as the legislature prepared to adjourn its regular session, what amounts to the playbook for North Carolina’s state government was set for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

That playbook is most usefully viewed in the context of spending and tax decisions made over the past several years of Republican dominance in the capital. The personal income tax has been shifted from a progressive structure, in which higher earners paid a higher rate, to one in which all who owe taxes pay at the same, lower rate. Corporate income taxes also have been trimmed. The upshot is that the state is forgoing upwards of $2 billion a year in tax revenue, with further cuts to come.

So there’s cold comfort in the 3 percent spending increase planned for the upcoming fiscal year. The increase to $23.0 billion has to be stacked against spending levels that were allowed to lag well behind obvious needs.

Perhaps nowhere was that clearer than in the critically important area of public education. Teacher pay, for example, had dropped on average to practically the worst in the country.

Raises now are pushing salaries toward the middle of the pack, but amid the overall competition for funds – education funds especially — that momentum could stall. The damage if North Carolina can’t maintain an ample and well-qualified corps of public school teachers, including teachers willing and able to work where poverty and its ills loom large, will occur gradually. But it would be inexorable and over time enormous.

Fewer watchdogs?

As Cooper suggested, it’s hard to see any efforts in the budget to account for cutbacks in federal spending urged by the Trump administration. Congress has been skeptical of President Trump’s proposed budget, but with conservatives applying intense tax-cutting pressure – and with huge spending categories such as health care very much in play – the flow of money from Washington could be clamped, to alarming effect.

Consider proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (now headed, we should recall, by a longtime agency foe, the horribly miscast Scott Pruitt). The EPA has a major presence in North Carolina, so shrinking its budget out of shortsighted hostility to its mission could have a sizeable economic impact here.

Jobs would be at risk not only on the EPA payroll, but also among people who work in environmental enforcement for the state whose positions are funded through the agency.

A recent news report pegged the number of EPA-funded employees in the state Department of Environmental Quality at 341. These are folks who have been delegated responsibility for issuing federal clean air and water permits and checking for violations. They’re supposed to make sure that airborne emissions or wastewater discharges from industrial sites are within legal standards.

A former DEQ official was quoted as saying that half the cost of North Carolina’s permitting and enforcement programs for clean air, clean water and safe drinking water is covered by the feds, and that under the Trump budget the state would lose $3 million for those efforts.

Environmental protection already has absorbed big cuts at the behest of anti-regulation legislators. The department’s new budget is basically flat. Perhaps if the EPA cuts go through, state-level adjustments will be made – although with money as tight as it is, Peter could well end up funding Paul.

Justice at the brink

Besides Cooper and new Supreme Court Justice Mike Morgan, the other prominent Democrat to move up in November’s election was Josh Stein, chosen to succeed Cooper as attorney general.

The former state senator from Raleigh had been an outspoken critic of the Senate’s ruling Republicans, and the scoldings he administered must have left them steaming. So was the $10 million cut to the budget of Stein’s Department of Justice another indulgence in partisan payback? The chance that such a cut would have been imposed if Stein’s Republican opponent last fall, then-Sen. Buck Newton, had won is too small to measure.

Senate budget writers said they simply wanted to shift money into expanding the ranks of assistant district attorneys and court clerks. Courthouse workloads have indeed grown, and funding for such positions has not kept up.

But faced with a cut in the range of 11 percent – with tight restrictions on where the savings must come from — Stein says he’ll have to lay off 123 employees, most of them attorneys.

The head of the N.C. Association of Police Chiefs told legislators the cuts will hurt the department’s ability to prosecute criminals, keep convicted criminals locked up and save tax money by defending lawsuits against the state. His warning seems to have been ignored.

Stein further annoyed legislators by declining to help represent them in some of the spate of lawsuits challenging new laws as unconstitutional. Republican setbacks in court suggest he wisely was refusing to defend the indefensible. The budget has language seeking to force him to get with the legislature’s program.

That amounts to bullying, and some of the same tactics are being used against Cooper. If the flaws at the budget’s core involve taxation and spending, these efforts by the legislature to hamstring the executive branch are doubly worrisome.

The governor and attorney general, after all, were chosen by voters across North Carolina who rejected the counterproductive agenda (including that spectacular misfire, House Bill 2) legislators have pursued so zealously. They must not be deprived of the authority to do their jobs in keeping with their own clear, compelling vision of a government properly dedicated to the public interest.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches.