When our General Assembly convened January 13th for the 2021 session, they had two main tasks: passing a state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 and drawing new districts for congressional, legislative and local governments. In baseball we would say they are batting 0 for 2, a pretty bad average. Meanwhile, we taxpayers are paying almost $850,000 per month for bleacher seats to watch their games.
Legislators get a pass for not achieving redistricting yet because the US Census Bureau is way behind schedule on releasing demographic information for each state and county. North Carolina will get a 14th congressional seat because of population growth the past decade, but there is no way to draw the district boundaries without knowing exactly where people live. It will take some time following Thursday's release date to analyze the data.
Do not minimize the importance of redistricting. The new districts will play heavily in the makeup of our congressional delegation and in which party will control our legislature following the 2022 election. You can be sure there have been closed door meetings already, but there is a real short deadline to get the districts approved. The filing deadline for candidates to run in the March 8 primary election is Friday, December 17th. Many insist since the data is so late we should move the primaries to our traditional second Tuesday in May, a sensible idea. We will all be watching to see what gerrymandering legerdemain our map drawers concoct and how many lawsuits result from their boundaries.
Back to the budget. North Carolina has not approved a new two-year budget since 2018 and we are surprised more voices are not loudly protesting the fact. Lawmakers have had seven months since they came to Raleigh, but I guess we've become accustomed to not having a budget at the start of the year. Here's an idea: Why not move the start of the fiscal year to October instead of July 1? We might come closer to achieving that goal, although it was October 30th before the 1998 budget was approved.
The budget the Senate approved in late June will certainly see a Cooper veto. The House budget was a little more acceptable, but there are major differences between the two houses and a conference committee, where differences are ironed out, will have a big task on many fronts, notably pay raises, restored master's pay for teachers, paid parental leave, tax cuts and emergency powers for the Governor. Conferees will also have to decide what to do with the more than $6 billion in cash in state coffers.
Here's my spin: Don't expect the compromise budget to be approved until at mid-September. The final spending number will be higher than the $25.7 billion spending target the House and Senate agreed upon. That was all but assured this past week, when we learned that in the year ending June 30th North Carolina collected $29.7 billion, a 24 percent increase in revenues. This should loosen the legislative purse strings a bit.
Cooper is going to have strong objections to whatever is passed and we won't know what role the governor might play in the negotiations, although we've been led to believe he (or his representative) will have a seat at the table. Cooper's bargaining chip will be a gubernatorial veto if negotiators don't give him enough of what he wants. But Roy Cooper can count, and he will be counting whether he has enough votes to sustain his veto.
I'm not called a "doubting Thomas" for nothing. I don't think we will see a new budget passed this year. Whether you think it good news or bad the legislature passed a measure to assure the current budget, in this case the legendary 2018 budget, will keep the state operating.
The people of North Carolina deserve better.
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. He recently retired from writing, producing and moderating the statewide half-hour TV program NC SPIN that aired 22 ˝ years. Contact him at email@example.com.