Even in One-Party States Like Alabama and North Carolina, Republicans Battle Over Budgets

Some are taking longer than they have in decades to pass a budget. Why can't the GOP work together?
by | September 16, 2015
(AP/Fernando Vergara)

It looks like Alabama and North Carolina will both (finally) finish their budgets this week. What took them so long?

In Alabama, the budget process stretched across six months and two special sessions. In North Carolina, the budget is more than two months overdue, resulting in the longest budget session in nearly two decades.

It's no mystery why budgets are still stalled in Illinois and Pennsylvania. In all those states, the governor belongs to a different party from the one that controls the legislature.

But in Alabama and North Carolina, Republicans control everything. In fact, they enjoy supermajorities in both states. Despite that fact, GOP legislators struggled to reach agreement on spending priorities and the basic question of how much their states should seek to collect in tax revenues.

"One faction believes that there simply isn't enough money to meet the needs that government should meet," said William Stewart, a retired University of Alabama political scientist. "Another faction believes we do have enough money, but we're not dividing it up right, or we're not efficiently spending the resources that we have."

A 'Leadership Vacuum' in Alabama

Alabama has always been a low-tax state. After winning re-election last fall on a no-new-taxes platform, Republican Gov. Robert Bentley became convinced that the state needed to raise revenues -- and he proposed a $541 million package of tax increases to do it.

But legislators balked. Instead, they passed a general fund budget that slashed spending across the board by $200 million, or 11 percent. Bentley vetoed that budget in June and legislators failed to make much progress during the first special session in August.

Two things made the process especially difficult.

One is a perennial issue. Alabama has two separate budgets -- one for education and one for basically everything else. The education budget is funded by sales and income taxes that have enjoyed healthier growth than the sources feeding the general fund. Lawmakers have typically resorted to one-time gimmicks to prop up the general fund, but they seemed to run out of tricks this year.

"We have frequently had to subsidize the general fund with one-time money," said Katherine Robertson, vice president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative think tank. "We don't have flexibility to move money around in a tight year."

The new budget shifts $80 million in use taxes, which are basically sales taxes collected on purchases made out of state, from the education budget to the general fund. In recent days, the state House had approved a $50 million shift, while the Senate wanted $100 million. The final package also includes an increase in cigarette taxes and about $50 million worth of spending cuts.

After pledging not to raise taxes, Alabama Republican Gov. Robert Bentley proposed $541 million in tax increases this year. (AP/Brynn Anderson)

Reaching this compromise took considerable effort. While legislators and the governor had worked well together in recent years, in this session there was disagreement between branches, between chambers and between the committees that oversee the education and general fund budgets.

"They were very much on opposite ends of the spectrum throughout the regular session and the first special session," Robertson said.

There was also a "leadership vacuum," Stewart said. Bentley couldn't get legislators to see things his way, while House Speaker Mike Hubbard had the cloud of a criminal indictment hanging over his head. There was no one person who could forge an agreement and get everybody to stay on that page, Stewart said.

"This is clearly a Republican state, but there's no single figure to keep everyone in line," said Brad Moody, a political scientist at Auburn University at Montgomery. "The Republican Party -- while it's the majority -- is splintered and badly, badly fragmented."

Intraparty Fighting in North Carolina

Intraparty debate also explains the budget delay in North Carolina. Since Republicans took control following the 2010 elections, they have engineered a much more conservative approach to government, including cuts to spending and taxes.

This year, the Senate wanted to continue pushing things further in that direction than the House was willing to go.

"Originally, the House wanted to spend far more than the governor or the Senate," said Sarah Curry, director of fiscal policy studies at the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank in Raleigh.

The two chambers spent weeks debating a list of items, including funding for light rail, teacher salaries; and driver's ed; distribution of sales taxes between counties; film incentives; sales and personal income tax cuts; and an increase in DMV fees.

Not only was there disagreement about how much to spend, but the normally closely-held process became unwieldy as the conference committee was expanded to include every legislator who voted "yes" on the chambers' original budget.

"There are genuine differences of opinion among leaders -- even leaders from the same party --  in just how far to take the anti-tax, anti-government ideology," said Nick Johnson, vice president for state fiscal policy at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank in Washington.

'The more you have control, the more you have internal factions'

That same dynamic played out earlier this year in Florida, another GOP-dominated state. Legislators there finished their budget in a special session in June, nearly two months after the regular session ended, with the House adjourning without passing a budget, due to a debate over whether or not to expand Medicaid.

There's been in-fighting among Republicans all year, said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Legislators have disagreed about budget priorities, a court-ordered redrawing of the state's congressional map and, in the House, which colleagues to support for future leadership roles in the term-limited chamber.

"We've seen it every step of the way in Florida this year," MacManus said. "Part of the problem is that the more you have control, the more you have internal factions, and that includes fights between the chambers."

Discord continued even after the budget passed. GOP Gov. Rick Scott issued a record $461 million worth of line-item vetoes. Republican legislators are still sore about having priority projects pulled.

"Runners ran in the dark this morning in Sebring thanks to the Governor's veto for replacement lighting on Hwy 27. #safe," tweeted Denise Grimsley, deputy GOP leader in the Florida Senate, on Monday.