The General Assembly session is less than a week old but the budget process is steaming ahead, as lawmakers continue not only to analyze the $21.5 billion plan proposed by Governor Mike Easley, but also narrow down their own spending recommendations.
The House will pass the budget first this summer and House leaders have set June 2 as the deadline for sending a bill to the Senate. House budget subcommittees met again in public Monday and reportedly House leaders spent much of the weekend working on the budget, which some legislative observers expect to see this week.
Most of the attention surrounding Easley's budget has focused on his plan to give teachers a seven percent raise and state employees a 1.5 percent increase with a one-tine bonus of $1,000, and to raise taxes on cigarettes and alcohol to pay for it.
Legislative leaders have said publicly the tax increases won't pass and no one expects the pay raise for teachers and state employees to be as unequal as Easley proposes. But there are hundreds of other important decisions to be made in the House in the next two weeks on items left out of Easley budget and others that he chose to reduce from requests made by agencies, including the State Board of Education.
Easley billed his budget as one that "builds on education progress" and it does increase overall education spending by almost $500 million. But more $300 million of the increase pays for the seven percent teacher pay raise, a laudable goal, but leaving very little for other education spending.
Easley ignores several priorities of the State Board of Education and the Department of Public Instruction, including $86 million for the Disadvantaged School Supplemental Fund, $40 million for educating children with disabilities, $20 million to improve school lunches, and almost $4 million for principals at struggling schools.
Rep. Rick Glazier has introduced legislation to come up with $17 million for children with disabilities in public schools and he is in a position to get it in the budget as Co-Chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.
Easley's budget also includes no money to reduce the waiting list for Community Alternative Programs for people with a developmental disability. That makes no sense morally or economically, as the services help keep people at home and out of institutions where care is even more expensive. The CAP waiting list is now 4,000 people long.
That program is under consideration by the Health and Human Services subcommittee, which Monday had more discussion about the state's troubled mental health system, focusing mainly on the state's community support program which a News & Observer series concluded has wasted $400 million. The community support program has become a flashpoint for the problems in the mental health system and the $400 million figure is now part of many campaigns against legislative incumbents.
Health and Human Services Secretary Dempsey Benton reports that billings for the services are down 30 percent from last year and efforts to recover money improperly paid are underway while controls of the program have been tightened.
The danger is that community support may be tougher to access for people who need it, and more importantly that lawmakers may be reluctant to invest more money in mental health services as political opponents continue to rail against the problems with community support.
There are plenty of other budget issues that have been largely left out of public discussions, the $11 million shortfall in lottery revenues to reduce class size in early grades, no new funding for Smart Start, and no new investment in the North Carolina Housing Trust Fund.
Despite the omissions, Easley's proposal frames the budget discussion, though many of his positive investments are from a foregone conclusion. House budget writers have decided on lower targets than Easley is proposing, $10 million less in health and human services, and want to put more money in the state's saving accounts, leaving less for important programs.
Add that to the decision to reject Easley's tax hikes, and it is easy to understand why advocates for the poor and working class families are anxious in the legislative halls.
Let's hope there's still time to convince House leaders to make Easley's budget better by helping children and adults with disabilities, families who can't find affordable housing, and principals dedicated to turning around struggling schools.
We don't just need a budget that meets a deadline, we need one that makes a difference in the lives of people in our communities who need help.