If the relationship between new Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republican-led General Assembly remains a “known unknown” at this point, one element of that relationship almost certainly can be characterized as a “known known” — Cooper’s ideological and media allies will label any adjustment to a budget recommendation from the governor as a “cut.”
Lawmakers headed back to Raleigh yesterday to start the real work of their “long” legislative session. The legislature’s most important job will involve developing a new two-year budget plan.
But that process doesn’t start with the General Assembly. First, Cooper’s budget team will draft its own two-year plan. Cooper will submit that plan to lawmakers, who will then consider Cooper’s ideas as they craft their own budget documents. (The House and Senate are likely to compile separate plans. That means three different sets of budget numbers will be floating around by late spring or early summer.)
It’s important to note that Cooper’s budget — like his Republican predecessor Pat McCrory’s proposals from the past four years — will represent only a recommendation. It’s the General Assembly’s job to make final budget decisions. Cooper can veto those decisions, but legislators are then free to override that veto. Republicans’ emphasis in recent years on preserving legislative supermajorities stems largely from their desire to preserve budget priorities.
How then can Cooper increase the likelihood that his budget ideas end up in the General Assembly’s final document? He might rely on his powers of persuasion and good-faith negotiations with legislative leaders.
It’s almost certain, though, that Cooper’s allies — and perhaps the governor himself — also will trot out the misleading idea that any level of spending increase that’s smaller than the one Cooper recommends represents a cut. (They’ll also argue for “full funding” of the governor’s plan, but that’s an argument to be debunked another day.)
Here’s one possible scenario: Cooper, after spending much of his election campaign advocating higher spending on traditional public schools, puts forward a plan that would boost state K-12 education funding by 7 percent.
Lawmakers, most of whom support the goal of increased education funding, nonetheless believe the governor’s proposal is bloated. Perhaps they fear that a one-year spending increase of that size is unsustainable within current revenue projections.
So the legislature instead budgets a 4 percent increase in K-12 education funding. To be clear, this represents a real 4 percent increase over the education funding level in the previous budget. (Based on an $8.7 billion state budget for K-12 schools, the increase would represent roughly $350 million.)
While that legislative plan clearly would represent a significant spending increase, it’s almost certain that critics will decry the “cuts” to Cooper’s budget. They will lament lost opportunities to improve public schools and blast miserly Republicans who are unwilling to make further “investments” in the state’s future.
They will complain that the GOP-led General Assembly is forcing schools to do more with less — completely ignoring the reality that a 4 percent budget increase would enable schools to do more with … more.
This funding increase equates to a household with $50,000 in income benefitting from a $2,000 raise (legislative budget) rather than a $3,500 raise (the governor’s budget proposal). To argue otherwise would be similar to calling a 6 percent budget increase a “shortfall.”
Some critics might actually believe that a reduction in the growth rate recommended in the governor’s budget represents a real “cut.” They are simply demonstrating ignorance of the way the budget process works. Others know that their cries of “cut” are misleading. They also recognize their misleading statements are likely to generate interest among the ignorant and within the conflict-obsessed media.
Those who understand the difference between an actual cut and a smaller rate of growth must be prepared to explain that difference. One could characterize the need for a good explanation as a “known known” of the 2017 legislative session.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.