NC state budget delay strengthens case for limits

By John Hood

Raleigh, NC – House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters last week that the North Carolina General Assembly is unlikely to craft and approve a state budget deal before Labor Day. That’s more than two months into the 2023-24 fiscal year that began July 1.

The good news is that, in stark contrast to the rules of the federal budget process, the failure to enact a state budget before the start of a fiscal year in North Carolina never results in a government shutdown. State lawmakers wisely changed the law years ago to ensure that if a new budget isn’t yet passed, the state continues to fund its programs at the spending levels approved the previous year.

Political histrionics over government shutdowns and debt ceilings accomplish little of consequence. In the nation’s capital, recalcitrant lawmakers may force Congress and the president to adopt a few nips and tucks in discretionary programs, but the growth of federal expenditure is driven primarily by higher interest rates (which drive up the cost of servicing federal debt) as well as increases in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other entitlements. You can’t fix either problem with photo ops or hissy fits.

Washington’s dysfunction isn’t mirrored in Raleigh, thank goodness. When legislators finish their budget compromise, Gov. Roy Cooper is very unlikely to veto it (because its passage is necessary to trigger the Medicaid expansion he sought for so many years). The pay raises contained in the new state budget will be retroactive to July 1, so the delay won’t cost public employees in the long run, either.

There is, however, a downside to all this. Unlike nearly all other states with officially part-time legislatures, North Carolina has no statutory or constitutional limits on the length of legislative sessions.

All of our neighbors do, for example. In Virginia, lawmakers meet in regular session for 30 calendar days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered ones. In Georgia, the annual limit is 40 “legislative days” (a different measure). In Tennessee, it’s 90 legislative days. South Carolina applies a different deadline: each regular session must end by the first Thursday in June. Nearby Florida meets for 60 calendar days a year. The Texas legislature technically convenes for regular session every other year.

Now, a close reading of my preceding paragraph will prompt skeptical readers to push back. Can’t legislators define “regular session” or “legislative day” in ways that will accommodate their political interests? And can’t legislative leaders or governors call special sessions that evade formal limits? Well, yeah. But even if you account for political gamesmanship — or any unanticipated but legitimate exigencies and emergencies — these legislators still end up spending a lot less time in session in their state capitals than North Carolina legislators do in Raleigh.

I am aware of no evidence to suggest that longer sessions are better than shorter ones. It doesn’t improve the quality of public services, or hold taxes and regulations down, or enhance public knowledge of state government and its operations. To the extent North Carolinians may be better governed than Georgians, Floridians, or Texans, it’s not because our state legislators spend more time in session.

Some stalwart defenders of the General Assembly’s constitutional prerogatives argue that longer sessions help keep the executive branch in check. Indeed, the then-Democratic leaders of the legislature began staying in session longer during the 1970s, when Jim Holshouser was the first Republican elected governor in modern times. That was no coincidence, although they largely continued the practice even when subsequent governors were Democrats.

North Carolina’s executive branch is already the weakest in the nation as judged by formal powers. Limiting legislative sessions wouldn’t meaningfully change the calculus. But it would make it easier to recruit good candidates to run for the General Assembly — and reduce the cost of running the institution.

In this case, North Carolina should stop being the exception and adopt what is really a commonsense rule. Set deadlines. Meet them. Then go home already.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history.