The budget our legislature has passed is the cherry on top of the upside-down power grab cake our lawmakers have been baking since January. I say upside down because instead of being a budget, this 625-page document is crammed full of non-budget related special provisions. Drafted behind closed doors, with practically no debate, lawmakers had little time to read and study the bill before having to vote on it.
Democrats first started inserting special provisions - legislation they either couldn't pass or didn't want the public to know they had passed - into budgets back in the 80s, however, as is the case with gerrymandering, Republicans have made that practice an art form.
As a budget, there were some positive items funded, but far more that deserved transparency and debate. What screams at you from this "budget"
are the massive power grabs.
Here are just a few instances. They continued the practice begun under form Governor Pat McCrory, in limiting or eliminating the Governor's appointment power. They revamped state and local election boards, mandating that both parties have parity, with legislators making the appointments. They reduced gubernatorial appointments to the Department of Transportation board, NC Railroad Board, Utilities Commission, Environmental Management Commission, Coastal Resources commission, university boards of Trustees and they took total control of state Community College board appointments, while also requiring that any new president be confirmed by them.
Lawmakers eased restrictions on public utilities for carbon emissions. They overhauled the Judicial Standards Commission, which investigates and disciplines judges, giving the four appointments to the Republican Majority in the legislature. The budget continued to dismantle traditional public education with insufficient funding and by tripling the amount of money allocated for private school vouchers.
The pay raises they enacted won't eliminate teacher shortages or vacancies in state agencies. They proclaimed no public entity, at the state or local level, can mandate vaccinations. They provided state funding to a $500 million private investment fund which they control. Legislators exempted themselves from the state's public records law. Without any input or desire for change, they took authority away from the NC High School Athletic Association and gave it to elected officials.
In obvious retribution to Commissioner of Insurance Mike Causey for not supporting their Blue Cross privatization bill, lawmakers arbitrarily and without any discussion with the Commissioner or firefighters, removed the Commissioner as State Fire Marshall, allowing themselves veto power of who is named. Firefighters are angry. Also, with no advance warning they mandated that the Department of Insurance submit a detailed plan to create an Affordable Care exchange to sell federally subsidized health insurance policies by March 1, a laughable deadline with no funding to accomplish it.
Perhaps the biggest power grab isn't getting much press. Without any advanced debate they set up a new "secret police,"
giving legislators the power, through the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations (Gov Ops) to investigate the executive branch, government agencies (state and local) and private companies that receive state funding. Further, anyone involved in the investigation must cooperate or be accused of a crime and be required by law to keep it secret.
Leadership said this secret policing is necessary to reveal instances of "misfeasance, malfeasance or nonfeasance, waste, abuse or illegal conduct."
By definition misfeasance is the wrongful exercise of lawful authority, malfeasance is wrongdoing by a public official, and nonfeasance is failure to perform an act required by law.
Our legislature doesn't think there should be but one branch of government - theirs. Coincidentally, leadership doesn't need all 170 elected members of the Assembly. The leaders and about 30 others make all the decisions; the remaining 140 could go home and save taxpayers money. GOP members vote in lockstep with leadership and Democrats' votes don't matter. Lawmakers also have no use for the executive or judicial branches that might question or oppose their actions. Wake Representative Terrence Everitt found out what happens when you do. For his questions about Speaker Moore's affair, his legislative office was suddenly moved to a basement closet.
Sadly, lawmakers aren't finished. With the budget decided, they are now moving on to more redistricting and further gerrymandering to guarantee their party remains in power.
Governor Cooper, between a rock and a hard place, knows this budget and its special provisions are bad, however if he vetoes it (as he was inclined to do) Medicaid expansion (Cooper's number one priority) wouldn't get funded. The legislature made Medicaid expansion conditional on budget passage. The governor cannot in good faith sign it into law, so the budget will sit on his desk for 10 days, then automatically become law.
Speaker Moore and Senator Berger are correct that investigations are needed to expose "misfeasance, malfeasance and nonfeasance."
But before they go examining others, they should begin by investigating themselves. Once again, we have proof that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We need term limits.
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 ½ years. Contact him at email@example.com.