A piece of the budget puzzle

A piece of the budget puzzle

- in Fitzsimon File

The longer the budget debate lasts in the General Assembly, the more puzzling it must be to the vast majority of people in North Carolina.

House and Senate leaders keep saying that it makes more sense to fire teachers, slash mental health services, and abolish more than 20,000 jobs than keep the sales tax at its current level.

The difference for the average family is a few dollars a month. No wonder most people don’t understand it.

The polls couldn’t be clearer. A majority of voters in both parties would rather leave taxes the same than harm their children’s public schools or make deep and damaging cuts to universities and community colleges.

But legislators don’t appear to be listening to the people and seemed more determined than ever to lower the sales tax no matter what damage it causes to education or human services.

That was their most often repeated pledge to the Tea Party and other right-wing groups before the election, to allow the 2009 temporary sales tax increase to expire.

Equally vexing is the refusal by legislative leaders to pass legislation that would extend the unemployment benefits for 37,000 unemployed workers even though it would not cost the state a penny.

Instead Republicans leaders are trying to use the workers’ plight to blackmail Governor Perdue into agreeing to draconian budget cuts. They are determined to cut taxes regardless of the consequences.

Many Republican members of the General Assembly know better. Several said privately before the session began that it probably makes sense to keep at least part of the 2009 sales tax increase on the books.

But they also know it is politically dangerous to breathe a word of that in public. Several Republicans who have strayed from the rigid party line and worked with Democrats in the past have paid the price, losing to a primary challenger recruited and funded by groups bankrolled by Art Pope and his allies on the hard right.

A significant number of first-term Republicans understand that. Ten of them in the House and eight in the Senate were elected in November with significant financial support from Pope and his family directly or from groups he funded.

The Institute for Southern Studies has reported that the campaigns of the Pope 18 were supported by more than $2.3 million from the Pope circles. That’s a lot of money to disappoint and a lot of funding that could be used in the next election against lawmakers who don’t toe the hard right line.

The polls are one thing. The potential of dozens of attack mailers flooding your district in 2012 is something else.

So while it seems like common sense to keep the sales tax the same instead of firing teachers and denying services to people who need them, the most important decisions being made by legislators this session aren’t about common sense.

They are part of a clear ideological agenda to dismantle public institutions, including public schools. Joe Coletti with the Locke Foundation, Pope’s flagship think tank, outlined part of it this week at a luncheon.

“Maybe it’s time we think about other ways to provide these services, Coletti said. “Start privatizing parks, start privatizing roads. Make education a parent’s responsibility and maybe not have compulsory attendance through age 16.”

“Maybe have vouchers for people to attend private schools or maybe find another way just to get out of there and say you know what, we shouldn’t be doing this in the first place and we shouldn’t be spending people’s money on this. ”

That couldn’t be much clearer. It is not a big deal to push for devastating cuts to public schools when you don’t believe in them in the first place.

That is the philosophy of the people behind the Republican majorities in the House and Senate, the interests that funded their campaigns.

That doesn’t bode well for teachers or public schools or people with a mental illness or a disability.

Tax cuts and dismantling government are more important to the folks keeping legislators in line.

And so far, that appears to mean more to the new majorities than what the people of North Carolina think.

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.