Scott Mooneyham: House, Senate to resolve vast budget differences

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RALEIGH — One of the major differences in the proposed state budgets approved by the House and Senate can be seen in the two competing documents without ever having to read either.

The Senate plan is 414 pages; the House budget bill is 305.

The Senate bill is larger because it is chock full of policy provisions that have only marginal budget implications.

The practice of putting policy provisions in the budget is not new, but it has been frowned upon in recent years. Slipping policy into the budget bill — rather than pursing it in separately debated bills — is a way of avoiding public scrutiny of significant changes.

It can also be used to emphasize the policy preferences of one chamber even after it has approved a separate bill.

The Senate budget bill, for example, contains provisions requiring some welfare applicants to be drug tested and creating rules for a new state government database that would collect and compile information on residents gleaned from other state agency records.

The House is not without guilt.

It has tucked a huge policy shift in its budget bill that would establish tax-paid vouchers to send children meeting certain income thresholds to private schools.

Of course, everything in legislative politics is not always what it seems.

Senate budget writers may have chosen to load up their budget document with policy provisions as a negotiating ploy. If House budget writers want them out, perhaps they are forced to give up something that they want.

And the two budget plans present huge differences without even considering the policy provisions.

The Senate wants to cut 4,500 teaching assistant jobs; the House wants to save most of those jobs and would spend $66 million more on K-12 education.

The House wants to cut out some of the additional money that would go toward enrollment growth at the state’s public universities; the Senate would spend $53 million more on the university system.

The Senate makes far more cuts to early childhood programs, including cutting and moving money to enroll children in the state’s pre-K program for at-risk children. Roughly $3 million would be cut, and $9 million would be moved to provide more dollars for child care subsidies.

Both plans would eliminate hundreds of prison guard positions and close down a handful of prisons, but the two sides disagree about which prisons should be shuttered.

The Senate would move pregnant women at some income levels off of the Medicaid health insurance program for the poor; the House would not.

The Republicans who now rule the roost at the legislature say that one lesson they learned from watching Democrats’ missteps was that failing to pass a budget by the start of the July 1 fiscal year is a good way to invoke public ill-will.

We’re about to find out whether they really learned that lesson.

They have a lot of differences to resolve in a short period of time.