The State’s Budget Belongs to the People of North Carolina. So Why Is It Settled in Back Rooms?

Educators protest budget shortfalls under Republican leadership outside the NC General Assembly in May 2018. The budget has become a very secretive process in the state. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

By Billy Ball

October 12, 2021

NC’s budget plan has a huge impact on your education and healthcare. Too bad it’s such a big secret.

The things we take for granted. 

Here in North Carolina, we’ve gotten used to divided government and political leaders that rarely speak to each other,  much less agree. 

But here’s one thing that we should never have gotten comfortable with: a budget process that happens almost entirely out of public sight.

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The News & Observer reported last week that Republican leaders in the state legislature had received a budget counteroffer from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s office. According to the same report, long-stalled talks about expanding Medicaid — the public healthcare program for low-income people — are back on. 

All of this movement in the budget is well and good. It’s intriguing even. But here’s the thing we’ve grown accustomed to, like a whipped dog that doesn’t know any better. 

Not a bit of it plays out anywhere but in the most private chambers. 

Before 2011, the budget was developed and hashed out with public hearings and public committee meetings. Sure, it wasn’t a perfect process, but it was, at least, a public process – something far more transparent than it is today.

Since Republican leadership seized control of both chambers of the state legislature in 2011, budget meetings have moved increasingly out of the public eye and into the back rooms.

Your time’s better spent waiting for the Loch Ness Monster to surface in Lake Lure than a public budget talk in North Carolina. We won’t see a line of this multi-billion dollar public plan — which sets the table for your schools, your healthcare, and your basic infrastructure — until it’s basically finished. 

Calling this bad government is generous.

“The Room Where It Happens”

The secrecy is a shame for so many reasons, not the least of which being that health care for so many is at stake.

Senate President Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore have been playing a game of “bad cop, bad cop” on Medicaid expansion for a decade

But they’re purportedly more open to expansion this year. Billions of dollars in federal incentives for states included in the nation’s COVID recovery plan might have something to do with that. 

Or perhaps lawmakers have grown weary of trying to explain the sense in willfully turning down a mostly federally-funded program during a pandemic, as its poorest residents get sicker and local hospitals destabilize.

I’m tired of writing about it. They’re tired of rationalizing it. And about a half-million North Carolinians who are suffering the consequences of the GOP’s Medicaid madness are tired of living it.

North Carolina hasn’t had an approved comprehensive budget plan in several years. The threat of Cooper’s veto — and a failure by opposing lawmakers to come to terms with him on healthcare and education — has made certain of that.

Does the newfound optimism in the budget and Medicaid expansion mean the state will get a temporary reprieve from partisan rancor? Does it mean the state might see an appropriately-funded public school system?

Who knows? Only the folks who are in the room. 

This is how it’s been done for the last decade or so, but don’t be fooled. It’s not how it has to be. 

It is a choice made especially by our state leaders to write these budgets without you or me or really any of the North Carolinians so drastically impacted.

We’re a forgiving bunch. We might be comfortable with a government that hums noiselessly when it doesn’t impact us so much. But what about when it concerns healthcare access for a half-million people or the quality of education for more than 1.4 million North Carolina children?

This is a private club deciding the outcome of very public matters.

And that is something we should never get used to.


  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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