Every state budget is a mixed bag of decisions that make sense and decisions that don’t, vital programs that receive needed funding and vital programs that are underfunded or even ignored.
Many budgets, including the version before the House this week, unfortunately also make policy changes that have never been considered before on the House or Senate floor or even debated in a committee.
Some of them are good ideas and some aren’t but most of them have no business in the budget where members can only vote yes or no. They deserve separate hearings and debates and votes.
Folks evaluating the House budget that was still changing as of midday Thursday will find all of those characteristics are true this time too and on balance it is a plan that falls well short of what the people of North Carolina deserve.
There are big reasons and small reasons why this budget doesn’t do enough to address the needs of the people lawmakers are supposed to be representing. Here are seven of them.
1) The House budget falls woefully short of restoring some of the damaging budget cuts to education made in the last few years to pay for the Robin Hood in reverse tax cuts that went primarily to corporations and the wealthy.
The budget does include $50 million for textbooks and digital resources in public schools, which is a start but still leaves textbook funding well below pre-Recession levels even though public school enrollment has increased. It also restored funding for driver’s ed which lawmakers absurdly ended last session.
But that’s about it for restoring education cuts. There is no new funding for teacher assistants after several thousand TA positions were slashed in recent years. There’s nothing to reverse the increase in class sizes or the shortage of school nurses or the reduction in classroom or administrative support that makes it easier for teachers and schools to do their jobs.
The budget also forces more cuts to the university system. It funds enrollment increases but still imposes another budget reduction on UNC that has suffered several hundred millions of dollars of cuts in recent years. This is not a pro education budget. It’s at best a hold-the-inadequate line education budget and that’s not good enough.
2) The budget allows another tax cut for corporations while raising taxes on almost everybody else though increased fees on licenses, car registrations, etc. House budget writers were silent on another one percent reduction in the corporate income tax cut taking effect this year because revenue numbers met the arbitrarily low trigger set in the tax reform legislation passed in 2013. Corporate taxes will go down and people will pay more to drive their cars.
3) The budget refuses to bring back the state Earned Income tax Credit that helped almost a million low-wage workers in the state. Lawmakers and Gov. Pat McCrory allowed to EITC to expire even as they were giving massive tax breaks to the wealthy and despite evidence that incomes of North Carolina families are still well below pre-recession levels.
The budget also does not restore the state tax deduction college savings plan. It does restore the deduction for medical expenses though House budget Chair Nelson Dollar is not happy about it.
4) The meager salary increases for teachers and state employees are not enough and there’s no commitment or plan to raise teacher pay to the national average. The budget gives most teachers and state workers a two percent increase and even that proposal was roundly attacked by pundits on the Right as too generous.
Many state workers have had virtually no raise at all in the last eight years and the raise for teachers won’t do much to boost North Carolina’s ranking in teacher pay which remains among the lowest in the country.
5) The budget increases funding for the completely unaccountable school voucher scheme and gives $2 million to a right-wing school privatization group to help create more charter schools in rural areas of the state.
The NC Supreme Court is still considering the constitutionality of the voucher program that sends taxpayer money to private academies and religious schools regardless of what they teach or who they hire to teach it.
The $2 million goes to Parents for Educational Freedom North Carolina, the leading advocacy organization for the voucher program.
6) The budget allows a controversial nonprofit online university to receive taxpayer money for student scholarships. The proposal that would make it likely that Western Governors University will expand its presence in the state is a perfect example of a proposal that deserves its own debate so lawmakers can make an informed decision about a plan to directly compete with the online programs of public universities in the state.
7) The budget increases the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services to make changes in benefits and reimbursements in the state Medicaid program that affects the lives of millions of people and their families. That would be a questionable move at any time, but given the management problems currently documented at the department, it’s especially troubling.
The budget also sets aside funding for the still unannounced Medicaid reform proposal and most importantly declines to follow the lead of many Republican states and expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, a move that would provide health care coverage for 500,000 people and create more than 20,000 jobs in the next ten years.
There’s plenty more to worry about in the House spending plan including ideologically-based provisions that could allow state parks and museums to charge much higher admission and schools to significantly increase class sizes.
Overall it’s a budget that does little to move North Carolina forward or even dig the state out of the hole the cuts to education and human services in the last four years have created.
Cutting taxes on corporations and the wealthy were more important last session and this budget makes it clear they still take priority over investments that improve the lives of families in North Carolina and ensure opportunities for their children.
That’s the fundamental reason why, despite a smattering of enlightened decisions, the House budget on balance is the wrong direction for the state.