The North Carolina General Assembly has no more critical task than enacting budgets that set state government’s scope and mission – programs to serve the public that must be financed with money from taxpayers. How much to spend, and where? Who pays? As they answer those questions, legislators showcase their priorities and values.
This year, the first proposed budget to be approved comes from the state Senate. For those of us concerned about how a budget helps meet the needs of ordinary people – and especially people struggling with poverty and lack of opportunity — the hope has to be that at least some of the Senate’s poor choices will be revisited and remedied when the House and Gov. Pat McCrory have their say.
Senators passed their budget bill on a 33-17 party-line vote (Republicans in favor, Democrats opposed). It’s almost shocking that the bill’s supporters seemed to signal their agreement with Sen. Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County, who declared during May 22 debate that a Democratic opponent, Sen. Josh Stein of Raleigh, “wants to make everybody dependent on government” via excessive spending that saps the incentive to work. What a cynical view of the many contingencies faced by people trapped in desperate circumstances beyond their control.
Stein sought to pull the reins on the bill’s most problematic feature – a downward adjustment in the money available for spending that would total $770 million over two years. The adjustment would clear the way for tax changes yielding less revenue even while increasing the burden on typical lower-income taxpayers.
If Stein’s amendment had passed, $770 million would have been restored to the two-year spending plan. That would spare 4,000 or so teacher assistant jobs that the Senate would wipe out, as well as some regular teaching jobs to be lost as class sizes are allowed to grow. It would have funded rural and minority economic development programs now on the chopping block. But the controlling bloc of senators decided that the tax cuts they favor were more important.
As the debate unfolded, outnumbered foes of the budget bill rose to highlight the needless damage it would do. “Your justification for gutting so much of what this state has been about makes no sense,” said Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh. “We have $770 million that’s not appropriated and this says you can’t spend that. … There was a choice.”
The choice, Blue reminded his colleagues, means less help for second- and third-graders whose teachers won’t have assistants. It means larger public school classes and higher tuition for community college students. It means yet more spending cuts for the public universities. It means a less effective judiciary as the state’s innovative drug courts are scrapped along with several Superior Court judgeships.
Blue noted that while the bill’s backers claim they want to fix problems with Medicaid, which serves the poor and disabled, the budget “ensures that many rural hospitals will fail.” Health care in rural communities would become even spottier.
And speaking of Medicaid, the Senate majority remained irrationally and hurtfully opposed to expanding that program to cover an additional 500,000 lower-income North Carolinians under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Sen. Martin Nesbitt of Asheville, the Democratic leader, proposed a budget amendment to carry out the expansion, noting that it would be 100 percent federally funded for the first three years. He said the change, besides improving access to health care for all those people, would create 23,000 jobs, mostly in hard-pressed rural areas, and mean a net gain in the budget of $68 million. Senators who were worried about the state getting stuck with long-term costs — but apparently not so worried about folks missing out on health care in the meantime – shot Nesbitt’s proposal down. Again, the vote was strictly party-line.
Nesbitt allowed himself to have the last word among the budget bill’s opponents. “It’s about choice and it’s about priorities, and $770 million being taken off the table” for tax changes that will tend to benefit the well-off, he said. And circling back to the charge leveled by Sen. Rucho, that advocates of more spending want to lock in a sense of dependency on government, Nesbitt laid down a powerful rebuttal.
“Children are dependent, if they’re poor,” he said. “They’re dependent on us for medical care. People do depend on us.” In schools, he said, “Kids on the margins need individual help. They need personal attention.”
“Now is the time to take care of these institutions that people depend on – public schools and health care,” Nesbitt said. “We’re going to be left with all these uninsured people and no way to take care of them. Health care for people is not fluff and fancy stuff – it’s a necessity. You’ve taken that $770 million to do something else with, and put these other things aside.”
Sen. Phil Berger, the Republican leader as Senate president pro tem, summed up the case for the proposed budget by saying that it would have North Carolina live within its means while “taking care of people who we need to take care of.” To which one could say, some of them, at least.
Berger also said the Senate’s budget would allow taxpayers relief “from what are without a doubt the highest taxes in the Southeast.” That’s a fine goal – provided that enough revenue is still coming in to advance other goals involving education, health care and the overall broadening of opportunities for North Carolinians to thrive. And provided as well that tax burdens remain fairly distributed according to ability to pay.
Berger has promoted a tax package that would reduce personal and corporate income tax rates while extending the sales tax to cover many services as well as food and medicine. Legislation to carry out those changes has yet to be introduced – perhaps a sign that the package’s supporters know they’re trying to make a difficult sale. The social justice imperative here is clear: Don’t shift the costs of government toward those of lesser means while cutting the very programs that help them maintain hope of better days to come.
— Steve Ford, Volunteer Program Associate