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Republicans’ desire to control purse strings doesn’t add up

RALEIGH — It was early 2003, and the North Carolina General Assembly was both mired in a bitter fight over redrawing legislative district lines and coping with another tough budget year.

The three chief budget writers in the state Senate — Democrats Aaron Plyler, Fountain Odom and Howard Lee — had either lost races or decided not to run in 2002 after new district maps put them in less-friendly surroundings.

The result had folks around the Legislative Building wondering who would succeed the three in some of the most powerful positions in the legislature.

Being an inquiring type (and paid to be so), I asked a legislative aide to one of the more likely candidates whether he might be interested.

“Why would he want it? If the state had any money, that would be one thing. Who wants to tell people how much money they aren’t going to get?” she replied.

That clear logic is why legislative Republicans’ recent maneuvering to deny Gov. Beverly Perdue any budget negotiation wiggle room doesn’t make much sense.

GOP legislators tried to box in the Democratic governor by inserting an open-ended “temporary” spending measure into legislation extending unemployment benefits to 37,000 workers. The controversial provision sets state spending at $1.4 billion less than Perdue’s proposed budget.

Perdue vetoed the bill. Since then, the two sides have been pointing fingers, implying that neither cares about the unemployed.

The immediate result may be politically damaging for both sides.

The end game makes the maneuvering by legislative Republicans even more baffling.

For almost a year, before Republicans won majorities in the state House and Senate, GOP legislators have argued that the Democratic state budget adopted for the current year was irresponsible, setting up the state for dire problems as federal stimulus money ran out.

In other words, they were smartly trying to put some Democratic ownership to next year’s budget while recognizing that they might be largely in charge of that budget.

Now that they are in charge, Republicans seem to have decided that no further Democratic ownership is needed, especially by a governor who has announced that she has a quart jar of red ink for her veto stamp.

Obviously, politicians seek their elected positions to exercise some authority and political decision-making. Most do so believing that they can right some wrongs, make things better for their neighbors and communities.

The impulse to try to exercise budget authority free and clear of the governor makes sense from a policy perspective. Legislative Republicans believe that they know best, that the reduced-fat spending diet that they are preparing for their fellow North Carolinians will be good for their overall health.

But separating policy from politics is never easy. Sometimes, it isn’t smart, either.

No matter the state spending plan put into law, some people are going to be unhappy.

Why would anyone want sole responsibility for parsing out that bad news?

Benny Kass is a practicing attorney in Washington, D.C., and Maryland. No legal relationship is created by this column. Questions for this column can be submitted to benny@inman.com.

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