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North Carolina budget fast-track squeezes out amendments

May 23, 2018

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Republicans in the North Carolina legislature are fast-tracking this year’s budget adjustments so quickly they’re preventing rank-and-file members — particularly Democrats — from formally offering their own changes.

House and Senate GOP leaders have been negotiating privately for weeks on how to alter the second year of the two-year government spending plan approved last summer. They expect to unveil the final product as soon as early next week, Republicans said Wednesday, with votes following soon after.

What’s different this year is a plan by legislative leaders to use a procedural method that prevents amendments to their package, either in committee or during floor debate.

Instead, the two chambers will hold up-or-down votes on what’s called a “conference report” proposal to spend $23.9 billion, with no ability for changes or to vote for some of the plan.

While closed-door discussions by members of the majority party aren’t unusual, the budget still usually follows the traditional legislative process. That’s when one chamber offers a proposal that can be amended in public before it heads to the other chamber, which makes its own changes before the two sides work out differences.

Skipping this process completely hasn’t happened with a budget since at least the early 1970s, according to Gerry Cohen, a now-retired staff lawyer for the General Assembly.

Republican leaders acknowledge what they’ve done is rare but defend it. The adjustments only affect a small portion of the already approved two-year budget, said Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Wake County Republican and senior chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

“That was obviously fully debated, fully discussed,” Dollar told reporters Wednesday, adding that Democrats had opportunities to speak with budget leaders and seek changes informally.

Democrats, in the minority in both chambers, are angry about the short-circuit. They said they should be allowed to offer ways to move around spending and offer ideas their constituents want. It also means outside groups will be unable to lobby to alter budget provisions.

“We’re supposed to be a deliberative body,” said Rep. Billy Richardson, a Cumberland County Democrat. “We’re supposed to have public input. We’re supposed to have all members participate in the process and essentially the vast majority of the members have been excluded.”

Richardson contends Republicans aren’t allowing amendments because they’re worried Democrats would use votes on particular issues — more education funding, for example — against them in the fall elections. Democrats need a handful of additional seats in one or both chambers to end the GOP’s veto-proof majorities and give Gov. Roy Cooper and fellow Democrats more legislative leverage.

Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, a Wake County Democrat and former House speaker, tweeted “the disregard for the spirit of the democratic process is breathtaking.”

“There is a real fear of civil discourse from (General Assembly) leadership.”

Democratic amendments rarely get approved, however, and Republicans often criticize their authors of grandstanding.

Sen. Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican and Senate budget committee co-chairman, said Democrats will have the ability to make their feelings known about the GOP budget when it’s released, and even before.

“The budget process is still open,” he said late Wednesday. If they’ve got some ideas that they’d like to add to the budget, we’d be more than willing to sit down and listen to them.”

GOP Rep. Chuck McGrady of Henderson County, another top budget writer, said negotiations have gone very well this year in part because of the low-key negotiations. Only a handful of changes still need to be resolved by House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger.

Still McGrady, like some other Republicans, wasn’t thrilled about the process.

“I think we’ll be criticized for the lack of transparency,” McGrady said. “I am not sure I would have done it this way, but now having been through the process, I do see some advantages to it. I think there’s got to be a balance.”

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