Here comes the secret budget train

Here comes the secret budget train

- in Fitzsimon File

The General Assembly comes back to town in two weeks for the short session that is traditionally dominated by discussion and debate about the budget as lawmakers make adjustments the two-year spending plan they passed the year before.

That is likely to be the case this year too but don’t look for much discussion or debate, especially in the House. The schedule recently released by the House leadership calls for the budget to be on the House floor for a vote less than a week after the session convenes.

That’s not much time for public hearings, public comments or even legislative debate. It’s also a pretty clear signal that the budget is actually being put together now, out of the public eye and far away from the occasional budget subcommittees that have been meeting in the Legislative Building in the last few weeks.

House leaders even admit that is true on some issues. Instructions for the General Government Subcommittee say explicitly that “future appropriation of HAVA funds is the purview of the Full House Chairs—the General Government Subcommittee will be consulted.”

Nice of them to consult rank and file legislators on the committee. Not let them vote mind you, just consult them.

HAVA stands for the Help America Vote Act, a federal law that includes federal funding for states to use to make sure elections run smoothly. It could pay for accessible voting sites, early voting, training poll workers, and host of other expenses that counties bear. But the state can’t access the $4 million in federal money unless the General Assembly allocates $660,000 of state funds.

You would think that would be a no-brainer, freeing up $4 million in federal money to help stage this year’s elections, but House leaders seem to have reservations about it.

They also don’t seem too keen on the public having a say in this year’s budget. The damaging cuts made last year to education, human services, and environmental protections have drawn widespread criticism and prompted a propaganda campaign by right-wing advocacy groups to respond, complete with television ads full of misleading claims about the budget.

It’s hard to imagine that there won’t be more damaging cuts this year. The budget passed last summer not only made draconian cuts, it included $700 million in time money for recurring expenses.

That’s funding that has to be replaced or more programs and services will be slashed. There was also $220 million in accounting maneuvers in the budget, moving expenses from off budget to on budget and counting on unrealistic savings to make the numbers work.

The state Medicaid program currently faces a $149 million shortfall because of savings built into the budget that haven’t materialized. The Medicaid shortfall is projected to grow to $243 million next year.

Then there’s education. Local school districts across the state stand to lose $254 million in federal money that is keeping 5,000 teachers in the classroom. If lawmakers don’t replace the federal money, the teachers will lose their jobs.

The N.C. Budget & Tax Center says that a conservative total of all the one time money, accounting tricks and reliance on disappearing federal funding is $1.4 billion.

That’s how much lawmakers must come up with in this legislative session just to keep state programs and services at their current and woefully inadequate levels.

That does not take into account any new expenses, like additional children enrolling in public schools, universities, or community colleges.

And Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger says the Senate will set aside $125 million for the merit pay part of his education reform plan.

House Speaker Thom Tillis says that teachers and state employees may receive a one-time bonus in lieu of a pay increase. That’s tens of millions of more dollars for lawmakers to come up with.

State revenues are coming in slightly ahead of projections and may result in an end of year surplus of $100-$150 million. But that’s only a fraction of the budget hole and that’s one time money too.

Tillis and Berger continue to refuse to consider any proposal that includes the obvious solution, raising new revenue to avoid more devastating cuts, instead putting rigid ideology ahead of what’s best for children and families, not to mention for fair elections.

No wonder they’d rather not have a full and honest and public budget debate this year.