Let’s assume the worst, which for the moment would mean that the N.C. Senate’s version of a new state budget sails through to enactment without change or compromise.
The sun, as they say, will still come up in the morning. Public school teachers will continue to report for their difficult, essential duties.
State parks will be staffed by conscientious rangers. Bumpy roads will be repaved. Law enforcement agents will work to keep us safe. Threats to public health will be monitored.
For all that, and more, North Carolina’s civic engine would be forced to sputter along on the fumes of conservative anti-government ideology.
Like the state House’s competing budget plan, the Senate budget bears the consequences of deep income tax cuts put into effect by the legislature’s majority Republicans.
Both budgets (House Bill 1030 as passed by the House on May 19 and by the Senate on June 3) have a $22.2 billion bottom line. That means spending authorized for the fiscal year beginning July 1 would be up slightly from the current year’s $21.7 billion.
However, largely to accommodate tax cuts whose annual impact exceeds $1 billion, the spending level also is set to reach what would have to be called a historic low. An analysis by the N.C. Justice Center pegs the proposed General Fund spending figure at 4.1 percent of state personal income. That would be the smallest percentage in 45 years, during which spending as a share of personal income has averaged 6.0 percent.
Invest for success
It should be obvious that the state’s budget belt, never long, has been painfully tightened – especially considering the needs that built up during a recession that clobbered so many communities and families. Those would be educational needs, health care needs, maintenance needs, economic development needs. The operative term is investment – but for this General Assembly, investment with a few exceptions might as well be a dirty word.
One of those exceptions lies in the area of teacher pay – a sore subject in North Carolina, where the average pay level now sits at 41st in the nation. That represents a slight uptick but nothing to brag about, given the importance of fielding a skilled, motivated teacher corps if public schools are to be the gateways to fulfilling lives that we want them to be.
The Senate budget would revamp the salary schedule so that a teacher would receive a step raise each year for the first 15 years of employment – a front-loading meant to make the profession more attractive.
But if money weren’t so tight, the Senate perhaps wouldn’t have put a corresponding squeeze on more senior teachers, who would see their scheduled step raises shrink, then disappear. Should hard-won experience count for so little? In the Senate’s floor debate on June 2, Democrats took up the veteran teachers’ cause – to no avail.
A pro-teacher push during an election year gives Republican legislators some cover. Yet the Senate budget sends a conflicting signal by ramping up the state’s “Opportunity Scholarship” voucher program.
The budget bill cites a “critical need … to provide opportunity for school choice for North Carolina students” and says it’s “imperative” that funding for the program be increased by $10 million per year for the next 10 years. That would top out at a cool $134.8 million annually.
Supporters argue that the scholarships, now capped at $4,000 per year, end up saving the state money because it costs more to send a child to public school. They also say the private schools that benefit from what amounts to an influx of state aid are better fits for some students.
Still, public school advocates don’t want to see money drained away that could used for teacher pay, newer textbooks, better digital connections and other enhancements. And they note that the private schools are loosely regulated, with little accountability for student performance.
Among the points of difference between the Senate and House budgets that will have to be negotiated out, this is one where the House should resist any urge to cater to the private school forces – many of them, sadly, operating under the banner of conservative Christianity.
From the Council of Churches’ perspective, what’s “imperative” is to strengthen the public schools that are responsible for serving all students – rich, poor, urban, rural, of whatever race or creed. That’s a more reliable path toward opportunity.
The House also should draw the line when it comes to protecting the quality of the state’s major drinking water reservoirs. This has been a contentious issue for years, since the costs of controlling polluted runoff tend to fall on upstream communities that don’t actually make use of reservoirs such as Falls and Jordan Lakes. Those communities are having to look at development limits, more effective wastewater treatment plants and other such measures.
As unpopular as those measures are in some quarters, they were the basis of the agreed-upon lake protection strategies. That is, until the legislature began putting off the rules’ effective date.
The Senate budget would require another set of studies and continue experimenting with techniques for cleaning the lakes that would lift the onus from upstream areas. So after the failure of the algae-churning SolarBee devices in Jordan Lake to do any good, now the state would investigate whether the lakes’ salvation could involve seeding them with freshwater mussels. It’s a nice idea, but utterly far-fetched.
Protection of the state’s key reservoirs is vital to public well-being and sound environmental stewardship. It should mean keeping the water flowing into them as clean as possible. Nothing less.
They work for us
Another bone of contention between the Senate and House is likely to be the treatment of state employees. The House would be slightly more generous, with a 2 percent raise for all of those employees and a 1.6 percent cost-of-living raise for retirees. The Senate would spring only for merit raises and merit bonuses each averaging 1 percent for current workers. Retirees would be out of luck.
Perhaps it stretches the point to note that state employee pay policies could be more generous if legislators weren’t so intent on cutting personal income taxes even further. But both chambers want to increase the standard deduction – billing it as a tax cut for the middle class (and implicitly acknowledging that previous cuts have been oriented toward high-end earners). The Senate approach would mean a revenue loss next year in the range of $145 million.
Tax cuts helping ordinary working families are popular in an election year. Should we care whether raises for state employees and retirees become, in a sense, collateral damage? Well, the point is that for state government to function as it should, effectively and efficiently in the public interest, there has to be a corps of competent, loyal employees.
Reasonably attractive compensation packages are necessary to hire and retain such folks. Not to provide those packages is to sabotage the government’s ability to carry out its mission. Who would want to do that – except for conservative legislators skeptical of government’s ability ever to do anything right or helpful for the public at large? Bless their hearts.
It was not lost on advocates for the disadvantaged that the $22.2 billion spending target accepted by both the Senate and the House follows a favorite conservative formula. It represents an increase over current-year spending that reflects the state’s population growth combined with inflation.
To enshrine that formula in the state constitution has become one of the Senate leadership’s fondest wishes. A bill – enticingly if deceptively labeled the Taxpayer Protection Act – that would set a statewide referendum on such an amendment passed the Senate last year. It now is pending in the House.
Here’s the problem: North Carolina presumably could muddle through another budget year with minimal additional investment while wealthy taxpayers and companies enjoyed the tax cuts with which they’ve been favored. But under a constitutional amendment, the state would be locked in to a low-tax, low-spending regime for the indefinite future. Its ability to respond to the needs of the day would be hindered, perhaps fatally.
There’s now a risk that the Taxpayer Protection Act, Senate Bill 607, could become entangled in budget negotiations, with the Senate demanding House support in return for concessions on other disputed points.
If that’s what it comes to, House Speaker Tim Moore and his lieutenants – along with Gov. Pat McCrory, who will review the final budget bill – must take a longer view of where the state’s interests really lie. They lie in policies that promote the widest avenues of success via strong public schools. They require a capable and well-staffed government workforce. They call for budgeting flexibility to meet both emerging and neglected priorities.
The Council of Churches is not alone in regarding the state budget as a testament to our shared public values. In that respect, the upcoming budget is destined to fall short of what many of us would like to see in the way of shared burdens and shared goals. But as Senate and House leaders now get down to cases, there’s always room to hope that public-spiritedness will carry the day in the face of pride and partisan zeal.