Listening to the folks on the Right railing against the House budget proposal this week you’d think that the spending plan was an updated state version of the New Deal, chocked full of new initiatives and public investments to provide more opportunities for people to fulfill their potential and take care of their families and to repair and strengthen North Carolina’s badly tattered safety net.
The budget unveiled by House leaders Monday is sadly nothing of the sort, but the growing opposition to it on the Right is a perfect illustration of how far out of the mainstream the political debate in the state has moved in recent years.
Groups like the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity (AFP) are furious that the House budget increases state spending by roughly a billion dollars overall and retains tax credits for economic development and renewable energy and reinstates a tax deduction for medical expenses.
AFP and other tea party types are complaining that the House proposal spends significantly more than the budget presented by Gov. Pat McCrory two months ago that mostly kept spending levels the same after paying for increased enrollment in schools and Medicaid and making inflationary adjustments.
But House leaders had new revenue estimates to work with and the pleasant surprise of a $400 million surplus predicted for the end of the current fiscal year.
The final House plan builds on McCrory’s budget but calling it an example of overspending is absurd. Almost $450 million of the increase pays for a two percent raise for teachers, state employees and state retirees, with some teachers getting slightly bigger pay hikes.
The budget also increases starting teacher pay to 35,000 a year, fulfilling a promise made by lawmakers and McCrory last year, though it is still far too low.
Surely the folks on the Right believe that state employees and every teacher deserve a raise since many of them have barely received an increase at all in the last ten years.
The House budget, like McCrory’s plan, also spends more than $200 million to pay for the additional students showing up at public schools next fall and to keep the same number of teacher assistants in early-grade classrooms as last year.
That’s not exactly extravagant spending either, especially when you consider that funding for thousands of TAs has been cut in the last four years. The House budget simply keeps the funding at the already reduced levels for another year.
There is also $50 million for textbooks and digital resources for schools in the House budget, which still leaves the textbook budget far below pre-recession levels even though enrollments have increased.
That’s almost three-fourths of the billion dollars in new spending that the Right is complaining about. There’s also almost $300 million to pay for increased Medicaid enrollment and increases in health care costs and $50 million to increase funding for the woefully underfunded courts and criminal justice system.
Another $50 million would restore the tax deduction for medical expenses that the 2013 tax reform package eliminated, prompting an outcry from seniors and their families who paid more state taxes last year because of the change.
The House puts $200 million in the state savings account and sets aside $200 million more for repairs and renovations to state buildings, both prudent decisions that conservatives and progressives can support.
Then there are the economic development provisions, grants for film production and tax credits for research and development, renewable energy and historic preservation, all of which were proposed in varying amounts by McCrory in his budget proposal.
That’s the bulk of the billion dollar spending increase that has the Right in an uproar and Senate leaders shaking their heads, promising to spend far less and consider additional tax cuts that will reducing funding further for schools, health care, and infrastructure.
That is the spectrum of the debate in North Carolina these days. On the one side an anemic House budget that gives teachers and state workers a meager raise and barely keeps schools and health care at the same woeful levels after years of deep cuts, and a Senate, supported by the Tea Party Right, that wants to do even less for workers and schools and people who need health care.
Anemic or regressive. Unless lawmakers come to their senses soon, those appear to be the budget choices this year and neither will do much for our future.
The people the lawmakers are supposed to be representing deserve far better.