Policy Watch Investigates

The fine print: lesser known details from the state’s budget

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Every budget is chock-full of details that don’t get much scrutiny from the residents and taxpayers that feel the effects, and this year’s $21.3 billion budget by Republican lawmakers is no exception.

Some of the biggest news coming out of the 260-page document (click here to read) were teacher pay raises and corresponding drops in other areas of the public education budget, as well as the backing off of previous threats to cull thousands of low-income aged, blind and elderly off of Medicaid rolls.

Though the budget isn’t yet law, (and there’s confusion about whether or not the legislature is even adjourned), it’s on the way to final approval.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory announced last week that, though he wasn’t happy with some of the big policy changes tucked into the budget bill, he planned on signing it.

“I’m proud of it, and I’m going to sign it,” McCrory said, according to Raleigh television station WRAL.

Democrats in the legislature spoke out Wednesday morning against some of these budget items and the fallout from last year’s tax cuts, saying Republican colleagues chose to give raises to teachers for political points for November’s elections at the expense of other state functions.

“Now we have this budget that is really a 90-day Band-Aid to keep the public confused and misinformed until after the election,” said state Rep. Larry Hall, a Durham Democrat and House Minority Leader.

Buried in the budget language are some fairly significant policy and funding changes that haven’t gotten a lot of attention during the mid-summer rush to pass the budget.

Far from an exhaustive list, here are some of the changes that went through that you may not have heard about:

  1. Child care subsidies: Thousands of low-income working families will be ineligible for child care subsidies, after lawmakers restricted the income levels of those that are eligible for the program. Changes to the statewide program are supposed to cut off help for 12,000 of the 110,000 children served, but those spots will likely be filled in from long waiting lists at counties.
  2. Child protective services: The legislature bolstered the troubled child protective services system, in a response to several high profile cases where children were killed or faced extensive abuse while under supervision. Counties will receive $7.4 million to reduce caseloads, while $4.5 million more will strengthen in-home services, according to this comprehensive breakdown of the budget by N.C. Health News.
  3. N.C. Infant-Toddler program: The legislature reiterated that it wants to cut $10 million from a N.C. Department of Health and Human Services program that screens and provides services to babies and toddlers at risk of developmental delays. (Click here for background) This year’s budget backs off a Senate proposal to demand the closure of four offices of the children’s developmental service agencies (CDSAs) spread across the state and instead calls for DHHS to “explore all options” to make the cuts and eliminate 160 positions by next July.
  4. Increases the cost of testing water in private wells from $55 to $74.
  5. At-risk student services: Even as Republican lawmakers delivered on promises to boost teacher pay, significant cuts came to other pieces of the education budget. One of those is a $9 million cut to a fund that provides additional services to at-risk students. School districts use that money in different ways, with some opting to fund teachers to keep class-size down, or others pay for summer school or after school programs.
  6. Textbook money: Gov. Pat McCrory wanted $23 million in extra funding to pay for textbooks in public schools, but lawmakers dialed that back to $905,000 in the final budget deal.North Carolina spent $116 million on textbooks statewide four years ago, as the effects of the Great Recession began to be felt. That’s now down to approximately $24.3 million statewide, including the nearly $1 million bump, and works out to about $16 per each of the state’s estimated 1.5 million students to spend on traditional textbooks as well as technology.The state should be spending about $67 per child for textbooks (which includes digital resources like e-books and software), said Philip Price, the chief financial officer for state education agency.

    “There’s less and less available for teachers to have access to in the classroom,” he said.

  7. No coal ash inspectors Since the February spill of 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River – one of the worst environmental disasters to hit North Carolina– state leaders and politicians pledged they would require meaningful cleanup from Duke Energy and enact measures to prevent similar scenarios at the state’s 32 other coal ash ponds, all of which are leaking toxic contaminants into groundwater. Lawmakers had talked about setting aside $1.5 million to hire 19 additional regulators at the N.C Department of Environment and Natural Resources to monitor existing ponds. But with the legislature’s last-minute failure to agree on coal-ash legislation this summer , the final budget passed without earmarking money for the new positions, leaving the state right back where it was.
  8. Also worrisome for school superintendents across the state is language that, in even-numbered years, school systems won’t receive automatic adjustments for growing student populations. That could mean rapidly growing school districts—like Wake County—won’t have guarantees their state funding will cover new students in the second-half of the state’s two year budget cycles, throwing a wrench in the budget planning process at the schools. Pressure will fall to the schools and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to make their case to the N.C. General Assembly for those funding adjustments.

Is there more that we’re missing? Let reporter Sarah Ovaska know at (919) 861-1463 or sarah@ncpolicywatch.com

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