Amid the budget showmanship, North Carolina’s budget will surely suffer

Amid the budget showmanship, North Carolina’s budget will surely suffer

North Carolina’s legislative leaders have finally – in one big, bursting feat of Houdini-like showmanship – liberated themselves from truth and context.

Their mastery of the mummers play was a revelation Tuesday, in their ruefully insincere keening that we, at this late budgetary hour, have arrived at this precipice without input from Gov. Roy Cooper – their Democratic foil, who submitted his own $25.2 billion budget 16 weeks ago, who called for nine percent teacher pay raises and a $3.9 billion statewide bond referendum for school infrastructure and $15 million to combat the opioid epidemic and, of course, Medicaid expansion. These are things we may regard as input.

In the off chance that GOP lawmakers find their browsers kaput or their Lexis Nexis accounts hacked, here is an easy link to that budget and more.

Otherwise, for the purpose of negotiations, it seems Cooper’s proposals – banished forthwith from the GOP’s propagandizing press conference materials Tuesday – are cast into a void, disregarded by officials without a passing respect for transparency.

And Republicans were eager to castigate the governor for a recent trip to New York in the midst of last week’s budget provocations, which is not surprising. The governor’s trip was, if not politically imprudent, ill-timed, although to cast Cooper’s expedition as evidence that his office has been unresponsive on its budget priorities strains credulity, even in Raleigh.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore presented their covertly doctored budget pact Tuesday without a public meeting with Cooper’s reps or the budget conference committee, the sort of whisper campaign that’s become a banal rite of passage in North Carolina for all parties, all politicians.

And what they arrived at is a $24 billion plan that spends, but not nearly enough, on our underfunded public schools; jettisons a statewide bond commitment to school facilities; and glibly disregards Medicaid expansion. It is aching, yearning, pleading for a veto, even if GOP legislators are courting porcine Democrats behind the scenes in hopes of overriding Cooper.

“We held this off as long as we could, hoping we could get some input from the governor, but here we are today,” Sen. Harry Brown, the Jacksonville Republican who chairs the Senate’s budget panel, mournfully intoned to reporters Tuesday.

For his part, Cooper has been frightfully quiet on the GOP’s budget accord, a void legislative leaders will gleefully exploit, whether it requires sense, logic or memory.

“I’d rather have a budget that reflects a portion of our priorities than no budget at all,” Berger said Tuesday. And by “a portion of priorities,” he means those held by the most conservative fringes of the GOP caucus and not the people of North Carolina, a more generous, empathetic and truthful bunch than that caucus can imagine.

It’s here that we’ve arrived at one of the more frightening paradoxes of our time.

The Internet – like an obsessive stenographer – captures all that we do and say and retweet. Our past is never really past because it can be recalled at a moment’s web search. But in a number of rare yet ubiquitous cases, some of them in this very state, it has had the disquieting effect of driving some leaders and politicians into a kind of fey hypocrisy, an unabashed insistence that what we know to be the truth is not really the truth, and that greater context is somehow superfluous.

What point is a masquerade if we – in our diverging hive minds – disregard contrary facts as the machinations of political opponents or overzealous, crooked reporters?

We know, from legislative leaders’ “bad-faith” transgressions – from the rocket-powered humiliation of North Carolina’s bigoted “bathroom bill,” from the unprecedented steamrolling of minority party dissent in last year’s conference report budget, from their unambiguously gerrymandered maps, from their “surgical precision” in blockading Black voters just days after the Supreme Court struck down monitoring provisions of the Voting Rights Act, and from the ghastly possibility that our leaders may have willfully deceived a federal court to quash a special election in 2017 – that lawmakers’ actions, above all, must be stringently scrutinized.

North Carolina boasts a roster, however small it may be, of trustworthy, fair and diligent reporters who know this to be true. But even in these circles, there is a reticence to state the obvious: That while there may be two opposing and manipulative partisan interests in this state, one has far outstripped the other.

Legislative leaders – for whom the ends always justify the means – suffer from the kind of “credibility crisis” a Berger rep attempted, with some devilish sense of irony, to foist upon the governor this week.

Believing that – between Cooper’s office and legislative leaders – there exists an equitable distribution in this last decade of misstatements, lies, distortions, and contrived scenarios is like comparing plastic, kiddie scissors to a lawnmower, one that belches bits and pieces of facts for us to Scotch-tape together.

If reporters equate the two, in order to eschew the appearance of an editorial opinion, it arguably expresses an editorial opinion in and of itself, demanding of us that we cast our logic into the same pit lawmakers tossed the governor’s budget this week.

For the first time in the better part of a decade, North Carolina lawmakers must respect members of this state who do not fall within their hawkishly conservative caucus. They must create a budget that acknowledges more than their own principles. It must reflect a conflicted, fast-changing and moderate state, not the swaggering, antiquated, homogeneous arch-conservatives these budgets have made North Carolinians out to be.

We have miles ahead of us in this budget process, but North Carolina legislators, reporters, and the governor’s office should acknowledge the tortured road behind as well.