Exile on Jones Street: Summer stock in Raleigh

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kirk rossby Kirk Ross

Meet the new fiscal year. Same as the old fiscal year.

On Tuesday morning, we quietly slipped into fiscal year 2015. For all the sound and fury last week you’d have never known such a thing was possible.

It’s tempting to be a hack — or more of a hack — and write about the last week in the legislature as a theater review.

Tempting, because so much of it was.

Here’s the set-up: The budget talks are not going well. The House and Senate conferees have only met once. The friction between the two sides is apparent.

These are not unusual conditions for this time of year. There’s always a lot of wheel-spinning while the budget debate grinds on. But the legislature seldom sits still, even when it really should. You can’t put 170 politicians under one roof and expect them to wait patiently.

Layer over that tradition this year’s special dynamics: a governor with flagging poll numbers and a House speaker running for US Senate while his lieutenants take turns running the place and jockey over which one of them gets the gavel next January.

So someone had the brilliant idea of introducing a new plan into the mix — maybe, perhaps, to demonstrate bold thinking and decisive action — and last Wednesday on the sunny, side lawn of the Executive Mansion, the governor, the speaker and friends announced their vision.

There’s an old expression we have in the Midwest stating that life was difficult on the prairie and then someone would pull out a fiddle and make things a whole lot worse. This was one of those times.

For starters, the governor and the speaker stepped all over their own optics. No one okayed the idea with the Senate, which would have to pass the plan, and no senators were to be found at the Executive Mansion that day. The Senate leadership’s absence was notable as were their subsequent comments about not being invited to the pithy party.

That got as much play in the media coverage as the announcement.

There’s an old expression we have in the Midwest stating that life was difficult on the prairie and then someone would pull out a fiddle and make things a whole lot worse. This was one of those times.

Then there was the plan itself, a neatly compact 41-page adjustment to teacher pay schedules, state-employee salaries and a little bit of coal-ash oversight funding thrown in for good measure.

The idea, as explained by House leaders, was to pass the plan and go home, leaving the budget approved last year in place. To give you some perspective, the full budget bill was 275 pages long when it passed the Senate and 286 pages when it passed the House. It was kind of like saying, “You know that other 240 or so pages? Forget ’em.”

The new mini-budget was quickly seen for what it was. Watching House budget chairs try to sell the idea was cringeworthy. When it dawned on their fellow representatives that the plan was to abandon most of the work done over the past several months, the room got quiet. No one had any more questions. This plan was going nowhere. It was pure show.

The Senate would eventually respond by sending the bill back untouched. There may be language in it that finds its way into the end product, but it looks for now that both sides are back to trying to find a way to pass a full budget. So what was that episode all about? I’m not sure anyone knows.

On an elevator after the mini-budget hearing broke up I heard two legislators who’d been standing behind the governor an hour earlier rationalize their morning achievements.

“We needed this.”

“Yeah, the governor needed it.”

“Yeah.”

End scene.