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In the Arena
The thankless task of state budget writing
By Bryan Warner
Published: June 1, 2010
RALEIGH - On a recent Monday evening North Carolina budget writers saw firsthand many of the faces that tell the real story behind the often-abstract numbers adding up to a $19 billion state budget.
About 250 people gathered at N.C. State University, with more participating via conference call at three community colleges, as part of a public hearing on the state’s spending plan.
“If you know of someway that we can streamline and do away with redundancies, we would love to have your ideas as to how we can make government more efficient, more accountable and just better,” House Speaker Joe Hackney invited those in attendance.
Few who took to the microphone offered any advice on trimming state government. Instead, members of the House Appropriations Committee -- charged with crafting course corrections on a budget passed last year -- listened as lobbyists, advocates and private citizens made their impassioned plea for a slice of the budgetary pie.
Many of the supplications were intensely personal. A mother spoke about the high cost of caring for her autistic child. A father spoke about the vital assistance provided for his disabled adult son. Educators told of the enormous needs of North Carolina’s public schools.
It was clear by the end of the three-hour session that the state’s ledger is about much more than dollars and cents, and what in other sectors might be considered rounding errors can make all the difference for our state’s most vulnerable citizens.
At the same time, few lawmakers have an appetite for the unpalatable option of raising more revenue. It may be true that the only sure things in life are death and taxes, but just as the millions spent on Botox treatments and other attempts at youthful rejuvenation demonstrate how Americans feverishly try to stave off the grim reaper, so do we reflexively push back against the government taking a larger cut of our income.
Listening to the compelling cases made by the speakers that Monday night for their share of the shrinking state budget, weighed against the stark reality of diminished revenue in this persistent economic downturn, makes one wonder why anyone would want to serve in the legislature during these trying times.
Certainly legislators aren’t in it for the money -- North Carolina lawmakers are paid just $14,000 per year. And few familiar with the General Assembly would extol the glamour of that work.
While the legislature has no doubt seen its fill of boneheaded politicians and suffered occasions of outright skullduggery, the vast majority of state legislators are honorable folks who go to Raleigh for the sole purpose of serving their communities. They are like Teddy Roosevelt’s man in the arena, “who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds.”
It is a Herculean task, forging a multi-billion-dollar budget that touches all 9.5 million North Carolina lives. Or perhaps it’s more aptly called Sisyphean, since just as lawmakers are able to push through an unwieldy budget, they have to return the very next year and start all over again.
This year’s budget is winding along its circuitous path. The N.C. Senate has sent its version to the House, where finance and appropriation committees are working on that chamber’s spending plan with a floor vote possible this week.
Once the House passes its budget, it moves back to the Senate where rejection awaits. Then it’s on to a conference between the two bodies with the aim of working out their discrepancies before the July 1 start of the new fiscal year.
“Hopefully we are able to resolve some differences and come out with a budget that’s best for the whole state of North Carolina,” Rep. Martha Alexander said with a note of optimism.
At the end of the day the cold reality of low revenue likely will vanquish the noble desire to help all worthy causes that seek aid from the state’s coffers. But even if the budget is far from perfect, we should applaud North Carolina lawmakers for having the courage to step into the ring.