The befuddling budget process rolls on

The befuddling budget process rolls on

- in Fitzsimon File

The ill-advised anti-gang legislation was center stage at the General Assembly Wednesday, with dozens of mayors and uniformed local law enforcement officials on hand to support the proposal to create new felonies and lengthen prison sentences to reduce gang activity across the state.

The Senate unanimously passed the get-tough anti-gang bill that now goes to a conference committee for final consideration. Senators also approved a gang prevention bill which will provide an unspecific amount of money for grants for community intervention programs.

The grant funding will presumably be part of the House budget that is expected to pass in less than two weeks. The befuddling process used to craft a spending plan continued Wednesday as subcommittees released preliminary spending  recommendations for education, health and human services, justice and public safety, and general operations of state government.

They are preliminary because they have to be approved by the top budget chairs that summon lawmakers to a corner room of the Legislative Office Building to make the case for their subcommittees' proposals.

The lawmakers making the final budget decisions are referred to as "the big chairs" in the legislative halls. Earlier this week House budget leaders seemed to be settling on a three percent pay raise for public school teachers and faculty members at UNC campuses community colleges.

Most other state employees are likely to receive a pay hike of between two and 2.75 percent or $1,100, whichever is greater.

The preliminary budget for health and human services generally tracks the proposals made by Governor Mike Easley, with a few notable exceptions. House budget writers wisely want to spend $8.2 million to reduce the waiting list for community alternatives programs for people with developmental disabilities.

Easley proposed no new money for the program. The House wants to invest more money in local hospitals and county health departments, investments that Easley did not recommend.

Most of the new investments in mental health focus on the state hospitals and crisis care in local communities, much of it paid for by reductions in the beleaguered community support program.

Lawmakers working on the education budget also largely followed Easley's lead, but did not recommend any increase in More at Four, Easley's signature program for at-risk kids.

The House also includes $6.2 million to help local school educate kids with disabilities, another need that Easley ignored. There is $10 million for dropout prevention grants and $5 million for the Disadvantaged School Supplemental Fund that helps poor schools.

Overall, the House budget spends $47 million more on education than Easley proposed, $62 million less on the university system, and $4 million more on community colleges, though the higher education numbers will rise as the big chairs add construction projects at various campuses.

There are still plenty of budget decisions to be made by House leaders and many of the ones announced Wednesday could change. There is still talk of addressing some pressing state needs with a bond issue and transportation advocates are still calling for a bond to speed up road construction, though using any extra money to repair crumbling bridges makes more sense.

Affordable housing still needs a much larger investment. The House is currently recommending $4 million for the North Carolina Housing Trust Fund to build homes for people with disabilities.

That's a start, but a significant additional investment in the Trust Fund would create jobs and build affordable places to live for some of the more than 600,000 households across the state currently facing a housing crisis.

It is also unclear how House leaders balance the budget and how they spend one-time money that normally pays for construction projects and other short term needs. Those numbers may not be released until the final budget emerges from the corner room and heads to the House floor for a vote.

Let's hope the budget writers ignore the advice of the Pope Civitas Institute, which has almost a billion dollars in tax reductions for lawmakers to consider, partially paid for by cuts to programs that reduce high school dropouts and keep non-violent offenders out of prison.

Senate budget writers have been part of most House discussions, even at the big chair level, which could mean a shorter overall budget process. That has some appeal for legislators and lobbyists who want to keep their summer vacation plans, but it may not be in the state's best interest.

We need more debate about investing state dollars, not less. Ten years from now, this year's budget will be judged on what it accomplished, not when it was completed.