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Opinion The long, messy process

Scott MooneyhamRALEIGH -- One of the stranger aspects of the messy state budget-making process is that state leaders, as much as they might like to, can’t really cut to the chase.

At some point in that process, the general shape of the end-product becomes fairly apparent to astute observers.

This year, that end-product will likely include $400 million to $600 million more than the $19 billion budget plan crafted by House Republicans. Most of the additional money will go to public schools and universities.

The money probably won’t come from extending a penny sales tax hike scheduled to expire on July 1. It probably will come from holding off on state building repairs, tapping the state's reserve savings account, and grabbing money that House Republicans had designated for the state's pension fund.

How can I be so sure that's what a final product will look like?

Well, I could be wrong. Unforeseen factors can and will enter into the picture.

The known factors suggest that I'm right.

They include Perdue's growing willingness to block legislative Republicans by using the veto, and poll numbers suggesting that her use of the veto has improved her popularity among Democrats and independents. She's also made clear that she won't go along with the proposed House cuts to public education.

As for legislative Republicans, they staked themselves out last fall on the expiration of "temporary" tax hikes adopted two years ago. Agreeing to extend the tax increases for another year or two would be a reversal of a fundamental campaign promise.

So a middle ground that involves freeing up money from the places where legislators traditionally look in tough times becomes the most obvious outcome.

Another ingredient in the budget mix are the five Democrats who voted with House Republicans on a budget.

After that vote, a few Republicans could barely contain themselves with giddiness, believing that they enjoyed a veto-proof majority (it takes a three-fifths majority to override a veto; Republicans are four votes short in the House) on the budget.

The likelihood that the five will stick with Republicans is slim. What they've done is shrewdly maneuver themselves into a prime position to figure into a final budget deal.

But that deal may be a couple of months away, and will probably involve Perdue using her veto stamp before the sides get down to real bargaining.

Senate Republicans, of late, have indicated that they might be putting more money into education than their House counterparts. It probably won’t be enough.

The reason that all involved must go through some Kabuki dance is because they first must prove to their own constituencies that they are serious about their negotiating positions.

House Speaker Thom Tillis will have to show the far-right members of his House Republican caucus that he is no pushover; Senate leader Phil Berger wants to avoid GOP activists questioning his conservative credentials; Perdue wants to show teachers that she did all she could for them.

And middle-of-the road North Carolinians will have to wait.


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