Fitzsimon File

A ray of hope in delay

The full House was originally scheduled to give final approval to its version of the state budget this Wednesday, at least according the budget schedule released by legislative leaders a few weeks ago.

That was the plan as late as last week after weeks of secret budget meetings that were confirmed by a right-wing think tank with close ties to Speaker Thom Tillis.

But a funny thing happened on the way to forcing a secretly written state budget through the House. A series of events, including public protests and private complaints about the lack of transparency, have slowed things down in what Republicans hoped would be one of the quickest legislative sessions in recent years.

House and Senate leaders were defending the secret budget process just a few days ago, brushing off criticism by saying they are merely making adjustments to last year’s spending plan, not coming up with a whole new budget.

That’s a strange line of defense from Republicans who routinely complained about the way the Democrats put the budget together when they were in power. And there are big budget issues facing lawmakers this session, primarily in education as $250 million dollars in federal stimulus funding is ending.

The federal money pays for almost 5,000 teachers and losing it would devastate many school systems that are already reeling from the cuts Republicans made last year.

There are many other complicated budget issues, a shortfall in Medicaid, calls to restore cuts to early childhood and preschool programs, and costs associated with a settlement with the federal government over the improper placement of people with a mental illness in rest homes—just to name a few.

Reportedly, some Republicans weren’t very happy about being locked out of the budget process and differences have arisen between the House and Senate, primarily over the education reform proposal from Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger that calls for funding a merit pay plan for teachers and more investments in support to help children in the early grades learn to read.

House leaders have said publicly that they are not interested in taking up Berger’s plan this summer, preferring to consider his reform proposals in the 2013 session.

Tuesday afternoon a pro-voucher education group rallied outside the General Assembly in support of a misguided plan that House leaders will introduce soon to give tax credits to corporations who provide scholarships for students to attend private schools. That proposal is not part of Berger’s plan.

Several House budget subcommittees did meet Tuesday morning to go over their wish lists, but the budget chairs didn’t even seem to know how much money they have to work with. That doesn’t sound like a budget process that will be over soon—and that’s good news.

It gives lawmakers the chance to think twice about last year’s cuts and to consider proposals by Governor Bev Perdue and public interest groups to raise additional revenue to provide more funding for education and human services.

Together NC released a poll Tuesday showing that the majority of voters support new revenue, including a penny increase in the state sales tax, closing corporate tax loopholes, and asking the wealthy to do more. That deserves a committee meeting or two.

It all adds up to an unexpected ray of hope in this summer legislative session.

The budget is clearly off the fast track. Now let’s hope it veers back toward sanity and away from the dangerous direction it headed last summer.