Editorial: Senate budget paints wrong portrait of North Carolina
The Senate budget leads North Carolina in the wrong direction and does not address the needs of our schools, economy, environment and infrastructure.Posted — Updated
* * *
There is nothing magical or mystical about North Carolina’s budget. Strip away the back-room political machinations and late-night antics, and it is a reflection of the state’s needs and priorities – as least as interpreted by the governor and most of the 170 members of the General Assembly.
The budget is short on addressing our state’s critical needs in education, infrastructure, job development, public safety or improving quality of life. It is long on pandering to ideological extremes, taking out retribution on perceived enemies and shortchanging North Carolina’s future.
Hopefully the House – and some senators who come to their senses – can exorcise some of the wacky and wicked provisions of the Senate budget. In the interim, they must work to craft a final budget that speaks to the needs of our state and does not pander to the orthodoxy of special interest think-tanks, mega-donors and fringe constituencies.
While the Senate leadership, in this election year, included a boost in teacher pay, ongoing needs of public schools remain neglected. Shrinking class size, funding text books, technology and other instructional needs are not priorities in the Senate budget. While Senate leaders, for example, said they couldn’t find the money to increase funding for a handful of early college and STEM high schools in rural communities, they did find $10 million to add to the state’s “opportunity” grant private school voucher program. Not only that, but they enshrined into the bill, guaranteed annual $10 million increases for the next 10 years, until the total reaches $134.8 million.
It is disingenuous to contend, as Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, did, that there just isn’t money available to provide raises to state workers or a cost-of-living pension increase to state retirees. The same budget lavishes tax breaks on special interests and the well-to-do. What did state retirees, who haven’t seen a cost-of-living pension increase since 2009, do to deserve to be treated so contemptuously? State workers have not seen a significant raise in pay in nearly a decade. Over the same period, not only has buying power decreased, but the legislature has chipped away at benefits while increasing fees for health coverage. Why the war on state workers? What does this do to keep, and attract, the best employees to serve taxpayers and their needs? How can it be justified amid our governor’s self-congratulatory slogan of a “North Carolina comeback?”
“I would have loved to have done a COLA,” Jackson said. “But we’re just not able to do that at this time.” Is the best guy the Senate has to justify their skinflint budget someone who is in federal court facing a lawsuit over failing to pay wages he owes his former workers?
After spending $1 million on the failed “solar bees” project to combat algae growth choking Jordan Lake – a program shown to be ineffective before it was even launched – the Senate wants to spend $500,000 to see if fresh water mussels can work any better. A scientist from UNC-Wilmington says he doubts this latest scheme will work, adding it might even further harm the lake that provides drinking water for nearly 300,000 people and provides recreation for another 1 million.
Curiously, the Senate budget targets the entertainment industry in a tax change that is aimed at luring high-tech companies and those that provide services in multiple states. The change, to “market-based services” would save money for companies that choose to base themselves in the state, but sell service to multiple states. But one sector – entertainment companies and national broadcast networks – wouldn’t. These companies would be taxed based on licensing fees and other revenue they earn from their content in North Carolina. Many of these same firms have been vocal in their opposition to House Bill 2.
Elsewhere in the budget there are curious changes that include consolidating the office of Youth Advocacy and Involvement into the unrelated Council for Women; abolishing the director of Jennette’s Pier and merging the duties with the current director of the N.C. Aquarium on Roanoke Island; eliminating Saturday and Sunday burials at the state’s veterans cemeteries and using $50 million in state Education Lottery funds to pay for ongoing public school transportation needs. Many of the same backers of this provision were once passionate opponents of the lottery in general, and specifically opposed using the funds for on-going government obligations.
Another concerning injection is a section entitled “Budget stability and continuity.” This provision says that if a fiscal year ends – and there is no budget enacted – that automatically the state Budget Director “may continue to allocate funds” according to the old budget. With such a provision, if the legislature next year can’t pass a budget by June 30 – no problem – the old budget just continues on. It is a handy tool that allows legislators to avoid the messy business of failing their responsibility to meet the budget deadline and go on the record about it. Further, it enshrines the current budget – its priorities and politics – should there be a governor who might have differences with the legislature’s leadership and possibly enough votes to sustain a budget bill veto. Given the very competitive challenge from Democrat Roy Cooper to a second term for McCrory, that is not a far-fetched possibility.
There is little to recommend in the Senate’s budget bill that wasn’t already was in the House version. We can only hope and implore that House and Senate budget negotiators put the needs of the state ahead of their personal ideological and score-settling agendas.