The big story this week in the General Assembly is not the remarkably quiet budget negotiations between the House and Senate as Aug. 14th approaches, the day that the continuing resolution keeping government operating expires.
No one at the legislative building expects a final budget deal by then so another continuing budget resolution is on the way and there are rumors of a showdown looming between legislative leaders and Gov. Pat McCrory over the length of time the next resolution will keep government operating.
McCrory is clearly impatient with the slow budget progress and wants a shorter extension of the current budget to force lawmakers to work more diligently toward a final agreement.
Legislative leaders don’t seem to be in much of a hurry at all, and there’s not much of a sense of urgency in the legislative building to reach a budget deal and wind up the session.
But so far this week the long overdue budget has hardly mentioned as House leaders unveiled their response to McCrory’s longstanding request for $2.85 billion in bond to pay for transportation projects and fund state government infrastructure improvements.
The plan from House leaders has a bigger price tag of $4.155 billion, with roughly $2.85 billion in bonds and another $1.2 billion in new transportation funding by ending transfers from funds that support roads and highways.
The bond total also includes another $400 million for transportation projects but the bulk of the borrowing would pay for education, with $900 million for projects at campuses of the university system, $500 million to help build public schools and $300 million for community college projects.
There’s also $135 million for parks, museums, and state attractions and $92 million for improvements at National Guard facilities.
The overall plan is not only larger than the one McCrory requested, it includes a much different list of projects, with much more emphasis on education construction than McCrory proposed.
That didn’t stop McCrory from issuing a statement praising House leaders for the package. The way things are going for McCrory these days, any sort of bond issue that passed would be a cause for celebration and a spate of press releases bragging about his effectiveness.
Senate leaders didn’t endorse the plan and didn’t appear at a news conference held by House leaders to release it. They instead said they looked forward to considering the package, a response news accounts described as cool.
Nothing at the General Assembly happens in a vacuum, so the House bond proposal now becomes part of the budget and adjournment mix as the session moves forward.
The Senate is not likely to accept the $400 million in the bond package for transportation and it’s a safe bet they will tinker with the list of projects too.
But overall, a debate over which public investments to make is a marked improvement over which public programs to slash, though there’s still plenty of slashing going on as House and Senate leaders try to come up with a final budget package.
One of the most interesting items in the House bond proposal is $24 million for an Australasia Complex and a new African Safari exhibit at the North Carolina Zoo.
There’s nothing wrong with that but Republicans took over the General Assembly in the 2010 election when one of the most often used attacks against the Democrats was that they supported a state budget that included money for a polar bear exhibit at the zoo.
Republican groups reprised the ad in some 2012 legislative races.
McCrory didn’t mention the Republican attack ads when he cut the ribbon on the new polar bear exhibit last fall. Apparently he and legislative leaders now believe that investing in improvements at the zoo is a good idea, and they’re right.
Now if they will just rethink their plans to fire teacher assistants and kick low-income kids off of childcare subsidies we’ll really be getting somewhere.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.