New money and the same old rhetoric

By: - June 24, 2005 5:35 am

Good news and bad news Wednesday from the legislative world, adjusted revenue estimates that provide more money to budget writers, and a rally reinforcing the misleading rhetoric that still plays a role in framing the budget debate.

Budget forecasters have told legislative leaders that state revenues are expected to grow by almost $120 million more than expected next year. The new estimate comes from the latest data from the April tax returns and ought to make it easier for House and Senate leaders to resolve the differences between the two spending plans.

The House budget spends $188 million more than the Senate, $100 million more of it in human services. The Senate budget spends more on education.

Budget negotiations began Wednesday afternoon in public meetings, a welcome change. Subcommittees were given budget targets half way between the House and Senate spending figures.  The unexpected money was apparently not included.

Legislative leaders want to finish most of the budget work by Tuesday, but it is still unlikely that they will pass a final budget before the end of the fiscal year, now just a week away. The new money won’t solve all the problems, especially the dispute over how to raise the money to balance the budget.

The major differences are the Senate’s decision to cut taxes on corporations and the wealthiest taxpayers and the amount of the cigarette tax. The Senate raises it 35 cents, the House 25 cents. There is also a chance the lottery will be part of the final budget agreement.

The good news about revenues understandably created a buzz among advocates for human services and may mean that lawmakers won’t make some of the damaging cuts proposed in the House and Senate budgets. The challenge is not to lose perspective.

Not making as many cuts to programs that desperately need more funding is not a measure of success, it’s just an indicator of the size of the failure to address problems like the affordable housing crisis, the waiting list for child care and the high school dropout rate.

While lawmakers were working on the budget, a few hundred people gathered on the bicentennial mall in front of the legislative building for a rally by the "Take Back Our State Coalition," a collection of backward thinking tanks and their supporters who believe the solution to most problems is to deny they exist or to blame people who are poor for their plight.

The t-shirts and signs and banners provided the usual slogans about evils of big government. One poster featured Governor Mike Easley, with the caption "North Carolina’s Least Wanted," an interesting take on a politician with an approval rating of over 60 percent in a recent poll.

The rally was predictable in its rhetoric and a reminder of the disconnect between the understandable anger and anxiety of many people and the misleading, manipulative solutions provided by the anti-government crowd.

Nobody at the rally mentioned that the wealthiest people in North Carolina pay less tax as a percentage of their income than the poor and the middle class. Yet tax cuts for the rich are on the table and human service programs and education may be cut to pay for them.

Not much talk about the programs that improve people’s lives, yet struggle for funding to survive. No mention about investment either, the idea that the state can create jobs and save money in the long run by helping people now.

That wouldn’t have fit in with the message at the rally that government is the problem and cutting taxes is always the solution.   It’s not clear who the "Take Back Our State" folks think has the state now, but it’s dismaying that the message somehow resonates with enough lawmakers to affect state policy.

It is not the state we need to take back, it is the debate about our state’s future. Enough with the slogans and the fear they inspire in some politicians. Time to start talking about what kind of state we want to be.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066