Republican legislative leaders have clearly been playing a double game with the state budget. On one side, they’ve finally extended the hand of cooperation to Governor Cooper, with whom they have otherwise spent the last five years in pitched battles. But at the same time that they have negotiated with the governor, they have continued to nail down commitments from select Democrats to support the GOP in a possible veto override. It’s frustrating to watch.
As the budget process nears its completion, the governor–and his progressive supporters–have to make a judgment on whether this budget is worth signing. Because of the process’s maddening secrecy, those of us outside the Raleigh beltline have access only to cursory knowledge about what is actually in this document. Republicans, obviously, have packed regressive tax cuts into the budget, but at the same time Cooper’s press releases have indicated that some increases in education funding may be in the works. Medicaid Expansion was left out.
From a Democratic perspective, this budget falls short of what the state needs. We have been living under austerity conditions for a decade and our public structures are in a state of disrepair. In a sense, North Carolina finds itself in the position it occupied early in Governor Kerr Scott’s administration. Scott took office after a generation of austerity brought on by the Depression and the Second World War, and campaigned on a “Go Forward” program of fulfilling the state’s pent-up need for public services. As Scott explained, we did not have a surplus of tax revenue, we had a deficit of public services. The same conditions apply today.
For all that, I believe Governor Cooper should sign the budget, with a few caveats that may pertain if the legislature’s proposal includes poison pills. Why? If Cooper’s press releases are accurate, this budget contains the first significant boost in education funding we have seen in North Carolina since before the Great Recession. One of the greatest tragedies to befall North Carolina in its modern history has been the way our government fundamentally walked away from 50 years of bipartisan progress with public education as its foundation. Our schools, and our very hope of moving forward after 10 years of decline, rest upon the restoration of education funding. That alone is reason enough for Cooper to grit his teeth and sign off on a budget that will inevitably be far from perfect, or even adequate.
Politics, too, plays a role in this calculation. Multiple sources from left and right have confirmed that Republicans have the votes to override a veto. If Cooper rejects the budget and enough Democrats vote to override, the governor will have taken a major political black eye. Furthermore, this setback will be concentrated right where he cannot afford further erosion. After years of maintaining support from a crucial chunk of Republican voters, Cooper has begun to lose that crossover appeal. Vetoing a GOP budget that has Democratic support will make him look highly partisan and hurt him among these crossover voters.
Finally, Cooper needs to prioritize party unity. Any veto override will be ugly and divisive for Democrats. There will be opprobrium directed at the Democrats who vote with the GOP majority, possibly primary challenges. The last thing Democrats need heading into a tough midterm is rancor within the party ranks. Signing the budget will disappoint some progressive activists, but vetoing it just to see the veto stamp rendered meaningless would divide the party like nothing since HB142, the partial repeal of N.C.’s infamous Bathroom Bill. Roy Cooper has been an extraordinary chief executive for North Carolina. He should probably sign this budget, though its imperfections may well warrant a veto at the end of the day.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.