Most of the talk about the budget making its way through the House this week has understandably focused on its devastating cuts. And there are plenty, like the elimination of 8,800 teacher assistants in public schools, the layoff of 3,200 faculty and staff at UNC, and slashing $60 million from mental health services to name but a few.
House leaders are demanding the cuts because they refuse to keep state tax rates at current levels for two more years to fulfill an ill-advised campaign pledge to let the 2009 temporary tax increases expire.
Numerous polls show that the majority of North Carolina voters would rather have lawmakers protect public schools and human services than keep their tea party pledge, but the leadership of the House and Senate have shown little inclination to listen.
But there’s something just as sinister in the budget that is not reflected in the numbers and the damaging cuts, a fundamental shift in the way state government works and how we think about it.
That shift was on full display this week as the House Finance Committee considered the roughly $100 million in fee increases in the budget proposal.
Republicans who keep promising not to raise taxes have no problem raising the cost of everything from GED tests to licenses for pet kennels.
They want to charge high school students $75 for drivers education that used to be a free part of the high school curriculum.
They want to charge you more to ride a state ferry. The ferries that are now free will now begin charging you to ride them.
Tuition is going up at community college and it will even cost more for foreclosure proceedings.
If you get a speeding ticket, the cost of court alone will now be $124.50. That does not include the fine for the traffic offense.
House Speaker Thom Tillis defended all the fee increases, saying they were a matter “of trying to align the fiscal foundation of the state with the way the state interacts with its citizens.”
That has long been a goal of the anti-government crowd, who advocate dramatically higher admission at museums and state parks, the theory being that people who visit the facilities should pay for them and that people who don’t should have not to subsidize those who do.
There’s no room in that world view for considering the benefit to the overall quality of life in the community by having first rate museums and well-maintained state parks. And there’s no consideration that we all benefit when all families have access to drivers education, not just the ones who can afford it.
Alexandra Sirota with the N.C. Budget and Tax Center calls that approach “vending machine government” where there’s no consideration for the common good, no concern about improving the quality of life in our communities for everybody.
Instead, people should only have access to what they are able to individually pay for.
At its most disturbing extreme, the idea is that parents should receive vouchers for public education and that taxpayers without children in school should not be required to subsidize families who do.
House Majority Paul Stam has introduced a voucher scheme this session that would provide a tax credit for parents who home school their children or send them to a private or religious school.
The ultimate goal is to sharply reduce taxes and eventually reduce, then eliminate the need for government to operate public institutions, leaving it all up to the individual and the exalted market.
User fees may have a place in state government, but it is a small and distinct one. But public universities, public schools, and public highways should be accessible to all regardless of the ability to pay.
So should drivers education, state ferries and access to GED tests. It shouldn’t all be about user fees, which is what Tillis really means by “realigning the fiscal foundation of the state.”
Somebody needs to tell Speaker Tillis and the right-wing think tanks that support him that people in North Carolina are not simply users, they are citizens and neighbors and parts of broader communities.
We don’t need to create a vending machine government. We need one that works for everybody.