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Omnibus budget ladened with more than money

The North Carolina General Assembly adopts an omnibus budget. When legislators give their “yea’’ or “nay’’ to the appropriations act, they each cast one vote on hundreds of measures packed into a single bill — a huge array of changes in law, instructions to agencies, policy decisions, tax cuts or hikes, and, of course, the distribution of money to the functions of government.

North Carolina, which ranks 9th in population in the country, is a large, sprawling state, and its government is thus a large, sprawling collection of public enterprises. In a reflection of both its governance complexity and its current political dynamics, the budget bill adopted this week runs to 438 pages, and its accompanying committee report uses 545 pages to detail line-items — but the page count is less important than the process and the outcome.

Over the years, big budget decisions have rested with a small group of powerful lawmakers — the House Speaker, the Senate President Pro Tem, and a handful of trusted allies. Once there was the Advisory Budget Commission, then after it was declared unconstitutional, Democratic leaders, during their years of legislative majorities, made budget decisions through informal groupings known as the “super-sub’’ or the “gang of eight.”

This year, the Republican legislative leadership appears to have kept an even tighter hold on the budget-making process. It is not only that lawmakers began voting on the combined House-Senate bill less than 24 hours after it was released; it is also that important policy decisions got little debate on the floor, hardly any airing in committees, in press conferences, in speeches or in position papers.

Consider, for purposes of illustration, the issue of appropriating state funds to pay for private school tuition. The legislature not only extended the voucher initiative that Republicans initiated four years ago, but also created a new “education savings account’’ system that would help finance private-school enrollment for students with disabilities.

There is, in fact, a lively national debate over vouchers, stirred anew by the Trump administration’s brewing proposal to apply federal funds. In addition, with 14 states having voucher programs, early research findings are becoming available.

The Education Commission of the States and the National Conference of State Legislatures, both scrupulously nonpartisan, have background analyses that we can find online.

“Many arguments in favor of voucher programs appear to rest on an assumption that private schools produce inherently better student outcomes than public schools,” says the ECS briefing paper. “Yet private schools are a heterogeneous group, as different from each other as they are from public schools… Generally, students attending private school through a voucher program tend to have similar academic outcomes to their peers in traditional public schools.”

Earlier this year, the Children’s Law Clinic at Duke Law School issued an analysis of North Carolina vouchers after three years of experience. “Based on limited and early data, more than half the students using vouchers are performing below average on nationally-standardized reading, language, and math tests,” said the Duke report. “Accountability measures for North Carolina private schools receiving vouchers are among the weakest in the country.”

The House-Senate bill did not contain an earlier provision for a study of academic outcomes. The Duke paper concluded, reasonably, “It is incumbent on the General Assembly and the public to look closely at the program to determine if this expansion, or even the program’s continuation, is merited.”

Now, the state has an “education savings account’’ system — among many other budget provisions — that emerged without being adopted in a separate bill, subject to public debate, committee scrutiny and roll-call votes on its merits. By happenstance, legislative action this week on the state budget has a distinct resemblance to the U.S. Senate’s health-insurance measure put together by a handful of Republican leaders.

Unlike Washington, there is no tradition of the filibuster in Raleigh, or the minority party having capacity or inclination for offering extensive amendments. In today’s North Carolina, it falls to Gov. Roy Cooper to define issues — for legislators and for the public — embedded in that omnibus budget.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.