by Dan Way
State House and Senate budget negotiators dragged the sputtering negotiating vehicle from the latest mud hole in which it was swamped on Wednesday, but not without a little tongue-lashing, finger wagging, and tart remarks from Senate Republicans who temporarily walked out of a negotiating session.
“You know, sometimes tempers flare,” House Speaker Thom Tillis said after the contentious joint budget conference committee meeting.
There was a plus side. The toe-to-toe session ended up like one of those reflexive, if strained, sibling handshakes after a friendly, backyard wrestling match devolved into UFC combat. It lured House negotiators out of their budget bunkers into a compromise on viscous differences in lottery revenue projections to get the process moving again.
It is apparent the grinding task of hammering out the final details of the 2014-15 budget is beginning to fray some nerves.
A House decision to devote its full one-hour allotment of budget compromise discussion Wednesday morning to bringing in school superintendents, a principal, and a classroom teacher to push the version of the House education budget that has the backing of Gov. Pat McCrory only added the proverbial fuel to the fire.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow, objected to the maneuver, and when Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, refused to pull the speakers from the agenda, Senate negotiators walked out.
Among Brown’s stated grievances were that it is far too late in the budget negotiations for redundant public comment that already was heard in appropriations meetings, hosting outside speakers was a violation of joint conference committee rules, and he had warned Dollar that the Senate opposed speeches by non-conferees.
Brown said the Senate could have countered the House “games” of finding speakers sympathetic to the House education plan by presenting supporters of the Senate’s education budget, but senators are more interested in advancing dialogue and decisions than public relations.
“I can make a dog and pony show” to rival the House presentation, said Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph. He noted that he and other senators have spoken with numerous educators over recent months who advised on and backed the Senate plan.
But Dollar insisted it was important for budget negotiators to hear firsthand from the education establishment the impact of the different budget plans. Gov. Pat McCrory chided the Senate delegation for walking out on the school superintendents’ predictable push for the plan they believe has the least pain – the McCrory/House version.
After the senators returned to the committee room to begin their one-hour presentation, much of the discussion revolved around their complaint that they had submitted numerous counter offers to the House without getting responses, and that the offer the House put forward on Wednesday was virtually unchanged from its previous offer.
The morning meeting adjourned with little to show but bruised feelings. That, and apologies from Brown for the Senate walkout, and from Tillis for forcing the issue with presenting outside speakers when only last-minute notice was provided to Senate conferees.
But in the afternoon session, the House conceded to the Senate demand of removing a rosy $29.5 million lottery revenue projection. That is how much House budget writers projected could be reaped in additional lottery ticket sales if lottery advertising expenditures were increased from 1 percent to 2 percent of the total lottery budget.
It is unclear why that, of all things in the competing budget plans, became one of the fiery focal points bringing budget progress to a halt. Tillis did not directly answer the question when it was put to him.
“The whole idea was to just provide more money to fund our priorities,” he said.
But with that issue no longer shackling the budget process, the hope is that full attention can now be turned to the education component of the budget, the final major issue to be resolved.
The Senate wants to award teachers an average 11 percent pay hike next year. That would push average North Carolina teacher pay to $51,198 and move it from 46th to 27th place among all states, and from 10th to third place among regional states.
The House plan contains a more modest 5 percent average pay increase that would move North Carolina to 37th place among all states and seventh place regionally. Average teacher pay would be $48,234 under its plan.
The Senate plan funds teacher pay at $468.7 million; the House teacher pay component is $178.3 million. The Senate has shelved insistence on tying teacher pay raises to voluntarily surrendering teacher tenure.
On Wednesday Brown said the Senate would make an even further major concession by restoring Senate funding cuts for teacher assistants if the House agreed to the Senate 11 percent pay hike.
The House has not responded to either Senate overture, though Tillis did launch a trial balloon of compromising at an 8 percent teacher pay raise that would be midway between the competing proposals.
The problem with 8 percent pay raises is that it would require elimination of between 3,200 and 3,500 teacher assistant positions, Tillis said, and the House is “not likely” to cut any teacher assistants.
“If you go to that teacher and you say I can give you an 8 percent raise but you lose your teaching assistant, or I can give you a 5 percent raise and you can keep your teaching assistant, almost without exception they say the 5 percent raise is great,” Tillis said.
With the warts-and-all budget haggling exposed in the open-air forum that budget conferees have agreed to this year, policy makers, pundits, and political partisans might be pining for the opaque tradition of closed-door conferences, and “spontaneous” negotiation gatherings around the water cooler out of public sight. No doubt the reform fits a bit uncomfortably at first, and entails a learning curve on the fine art of diplomacy and best practices in the sunshine.
But for the purists among us who have long sought transparency, allowing full view of budget proceedings is a vital part of that essential consent-of-the-governed concept.
Constituents should have the right to know not just budget outcomes, but how those results were achieved, who said what and how, where obstructions or fixes occurred, and who demonstrated principled leadership. Witnessing political conduct, wisdom, and dexterity informs the voting process much better than a Kumbaya post-budget press release.
Of course, there is an argument to be made that negotiating out of the public magnifying lens is easier because it ratchets down pressure and grandstanding.
But open government advocates would say that very same argument could apply to any political decision, large or small, and creating exemptions inevitably leads to more carve-outs allowing public affairs to be conducted in secret.
Running a government is intended to be public business managed by temporary stewards of public assets. Those who crave secrecy should run for the country club board of directors.