September 23, 2015
As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader
You’ll forgive me if I don’t care that much about what happened with the budget or the budget deal. The government spent almost three months setting up this giant pitched battle between light and darkness and in the end nothing changed. The governor signed a budget that is more or less what the legislature passed and she vetoed. What was the point exactly?
Remember the irresponsible budget that was so unbalanced that the governor felt she had no choice but to veto it? The business tax cuts were called irresponsible and a threat to our future. They could only go forward if balanced by about $100 million of tax increases. And the rest of the budget was a disaster ignoring critical priorities in at least five different areas, would “present a danger to our state’s future,” and was “unbalanced, dishonest about what it funds.”
Obviously the Republican legislature disagreed with the Democratic governor about her strong rhetoric. But compromise seemed impossible. It also turned out to be unnecessary. The final so-called budget deal included almost no changes of any significance.
The final deal is essentially the legislative budget that was vetoed. The supposedly catastrophic tax cuts are not just included but accelerated. If the last budget was “dishonest about what it funds” — and of course it just plain wasn’t — no changes whatsoever were made to what it funds and how it funds them. If the vetoed budget was a danger to the future so is this because the non-compromise doesn’t change how it funds substance abuse, higher education, or anything else.
Two things happened and only two things — go look at the very very short compromise amendment. First the dreadful tax cuts have a more or less meaningless recession trigger. The first half of the cuts happen no matter what. The second step happens if revenue meets the conservative revenue projections for the whole budget. If we don’t have a recession, we’ll make the revenue estimates. Other than that, they are reduced by the same modest 7% reduction as previously planned — from 8.5% to 7.9% — but in two steps instead of three.
If the old cuts are ridiculous, dangerous, and unpaid for, how is this less so? The simple truth is that no one believed the old modest cut was dangerous, even the politicians writing those words. This budget battle was really only about words that had no meaning to their author.
The other change was that the 2% state employee pay raise was written into the budget along with language restoring the legislative oversight committee. This compromise was a concession on the part of the governor to the legislature. The raise itself, negotiated at the bargaining table albeit with no legislative input, was always going to happen and was offered almost immediately after the veto. Restoring the legislative committee is a retreat from executive branch authority.
And that’s all that happened. The executive branch ceded back to the legislature some of its traditional authority in exchange for the pre-negotiated pay raise. The supposedly horrible business tax cuts are still there, there are no changes to spending, and whatever might have been dishonest — other than the dishonest charge of dishonesty — remains.
So why did we waste three months of our policy life on nothing? I don’t know and frankly I don’t think they do either.
Policymakers did learn a few important lessons — or at least I hope they did.
The most important lesson is that no one much cares. The budget battle or debacle did not occupy anyone’s mind in the general populace. No one much took any notice. They are to used to politicians squabbling about this and that, battling press releases written by operatives who don’t live in the same world the rest of us do filled with meaningless and exaggerated rhetoric having the same significance as the overuse of exclamation points and semicolon winks in a teenager’s text messages.
The reason no one cares is that people are fundamentally sensible. The boy who cried wolf is background noise and the budget would eventually sort itself out in ways that had as little impact on anyone as the original version would.
The grave “danger to the state’s future” has been magically averted by doing absolutely nothing. Thank goodness I wasn’t paying attention.