Missing the budget forest for all the sniping in the trees

Missing the budget forest for all the sniping in the trees

- in Fitzsimon File


Most of the talk in Raleigh these days is about the sniping between House and Senate leaders as lawmakers try to come up with a final budget agreement.

This week House Speaker Thom Tillis joined Governor Pat McCrory on the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion to tout a new proposal by the House to pass a scaled down budget that would give teachers a raise and put some money aside for increased Medicaid costs.

Senate leaders blasted the proposal as a media stunt and some of them even called out State Budget Director Art Pope who appeared before a Senate committee Thursday morning to try to clear up a dispute about how much Medicaid will cost next year.

The back and forth is interesting political drama that understandably is fascinating for insiders, but almost lost in the soap opera is what the numbers actually mean and how far the budget proposals fall short of making the meaningful investments needed in education, human services and other vital state programs.

The mini House budget proposal floated this week is a good example. It does give teachers a five percent raise and state employees a flat $1,000 pay increase but it also makes $360 million in budget cuts and transfers more than $100 million in lottery revenue into the General Fund to help pay for the raises.

House leaders who used to rightly oppose the predatory lottery seem to be quite fond of it these days.

And since the scaled down House plan does not address most of the budget areas, it leaves in place most of the cuts scheduled for next year in the two year budget lawmakers passed last summer.

That means another cut of almost $75 million to the university system. The House proposal also leaves many of last year’s reductions in public school funding in place—less money for teacher assistants, less funding for programs for students with limited English proficiency, and less investment in instructional support personnel that help teachers and school administrators.

The House mini budget is worse than a media stunt. It’s a cynical proposal that damages the public schools that Gov. McCrory and House leaders claim they want to support and it further dismantles the already reeling university system. Not to mention the woefully underfunded courts, pre-k programs and mental health services.

But it’s also a perfect companion to both the budgets the House and Senate have already passed. Both allow another round of scheduled tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy to take effect January 1st while allowing the state Earned Income Tax Credit that helps low-wage workers to expire.

Both budgets continue the downward spiral of state investments that began during the Great Recession and continued even as the state economy is recovering this year.

The N.C. Budget & Tax Center reports that overall state spending remains well below the 45-year-average as part of the state’s economy.  In an odd way, the allegation by folks on the Right that the state has a spending problem is true. The state does.  Policymakers are not investing enough, not providing the funding the state needs to provide basic services people need.

Teachers may get a raise this year, but unless lawmakers come to their senses soon, teachers will also have to keep buying supplies with their own money and there won’t enough textbooks to go around.  And many teachers will have more students in their classrooms.

The university system will continue to cut class offerings and raise tuition and lose top faculty members and research dollars to states that understand the economic impact of investing in higher education.

And most importantly, families already struggling to make ends meet will struggle even more, as child care subsidies and PreK programs and other services will be more difficult to access.

All because the folks currently running the General Assembly think cutting taxes on corporations and folks at the top of the economic ladder is more important.

That’s the real story of this budget debate, no matter how testy House and Senate leaders get with each other or how many finger-pointing press releases they issue.