The people of North Carolina are about to find out if they have a governor with a mind and an agenda of his own or a weak and mostly ceremonial leader who is unwilling or unable to stand up to the legislative leaders of his own party when they threaten the well-being of the state.
Governor Pat McCrory is clearly unhappy with the budget the Senate passed last week. He said publicly that he is worried that the additional cuts it makes to state agencies will make it difficult for government to do its job. He is right.
He is also not thrilled with the Senate teacher pay proposal that gives an average of an 11 percent raise to teachers who give up career status protections and slashes almost $400 million in school spending to pay for it, including laying off 7,400 teacher assistants and cutting funding for school nurses.
McCrory’s plan recommended a two percent pay hike for most teachers with a larger raise for teachers just starting out, and he left the career status protections in place.
The Senate budget also includes no new funding to address the textbook crisis in the state. McCrory’s budget proposed $23 million in new funding, not nearly enough, but at least a start.
Senate leaders astonishingly slashed technology for funding for the courts too, despite massively outdated computer systems that threaten the administration of justice. McCrory proposed increased funding for the courts.
Then there is Medicaid. Senate leaders want to kick thousands of people who are aged, blind, or disabled off the health care program.
And the budget rejects McCrory’s painstakingly developed Medicaid reform efforts that expand Accountable Care Organizations to save money and improve patient care by building on the success of Community Care of North Carolina, an approach generally endorsed by medical providers and health care advocates.
The Senate ends Community Care completely, ignores the proposal about Accountable Care Organizations, and sets up a new entity outside the Department of Health and Human Services that has never been seriously discussed in any public setting.
There are plenty more horrible provisions in the Senate budget, too many to list, and McCrory’s own budget leaves much to be desired too.
But the Senate plan is in a regressive league of its own. It’s one of the most extreme budgets that has ever passed a chamber of the General Assembly.
It’s not clear where the House leadership stands or how Speaker Thom Tillis’ candidacy for the U.S. Senate will affect budget negotiations, but his desire to end the session as soon as possible is not a position of strength when trying to resolve budget disputes.
It’s likely that McCrory himself will have to play a prominent role in fending off the worst of the Senate proposals.
But is he up to it?
There are reasons to doubt it. McCrory said clearly when campaigning for governor that he would not sign a bill that further restricted access to abortion services but last year he signed one anyway.
He vowed in his State of the State speech last year that any tax reform plan would be revenue neutral but then signed a tax cut bill that will cost the state $600 million a year.
And lawmakers easily overrode both of McCrory’s vetoes last year, an embarrassing outcome for the governor after news reports that he was working hard for the votes to sustain them.
Then there’s last week when McCrory took off to Charlotte as the Senate was preparing to pass the budget that he publicly criticized.
McCrory’s public schedule included a photo shoot and interview for the “Great Dogs of Charlotte” in the afternoon.
It might be a worthy cause, but it’s hard to believe the organizers of the photo session wouldn’t have understood if McCrory had asked to reschedule and spent the time instead pressuring Senators not to kick disabled people off of Medicaid.
Now the budget moves to the House where McCrory may have a little more influence. But in the end, someone is going to have to stand up to the increasingly far-right Senate leadership. And it will have to be McCrory.
He ran for governor promising to change the culture of Raleigh and to “step on the toes of the Right and the Left,” a phrase he still uses often in his appearances across the state.
It’s hard to think of a time when he has disappointed the Right, much less stood up to them. But this Senate budget is so bad, it’s not about stepping on toes or even about the Right of the Left.
It’s about maintaining some basic level of decency in the state, not stripping classrooms bare and kicking the most vulnerable people in our communities out in the street.
Surely McCrory realizes that. We’ll find out soon whether or not he can do something about it. We will find out if we actually have a governor.
Chris Fitzsimon is founder and executive director of N.C. Policy Watch, a progressive think tank affiliated with the North Carolina Justice Center.