The radical budget advances

By: - April 28, 2011 11:34 am

For much of the eight hours of committee debate on the House budget Wednesday, it almost seemed that lawmakers were talking about a different proposal than the one before them.

Among the 70 amendments considered were calls to restore money for prison chaplains and the marketing of the state’s wineries. They were both approved.

There was a heated debate about Planned Parenthood, which was more a reflection of the venom of the anti-choice, anti-family-planning Republicans than anything to do with the actual state budget.

There were some flash points that provided clues about just how bad the House budget is. Rep. Ray Rapp tried unsuccessfully to remove a provision that would charge high school students $75 to take drivers education, so now poor families have something else to struggle to afford.

Rapp also tried to delay the ill-advised move of More at Four, a program for at-risk kids, from the Department of Public Instruction to the Department of Health and Human Services, citing the lack of support for the move from education and early childhood experts.

The Republicans voted down that idea and also defeated a proposal by Rep. Darren Jackson to restore some of the funding for the 8,800 teacher assistant jobs that the budget slashes.

Maybe the most telling indication of the Republican leadership’s attitude came when Rep. Verla Insko questioned the wisdom of the massive cuts in human services. Rep. Nelson Dollar replied that the budget was not as draconian as the one passed last year by Democrats.

That is not only inaccurate and ignores the role of last year’s federal stimulus money but flies in the face of everything Republicans have been saying since before the election, that Democrats made no real cuts to the budget and spent too much, causing the state’s fiscal problems.

Now Dollar is saying that they cut too much. And even if that were true, cutting more this year is absurd.

Thanks to the efforts of a few legislators there were some important improvements made to the spending proposal. The committee approved Rep. Jackson’s amendment to restore funding for Sentencing Services, a highly successful prison alternative program. And Rep. Tim Spear managed to convince the committee to remove a provision establishing a toll on a ferry to Ocracoke.

There were a handful of other small victories, but even some of them were a mixed bag. The committee voted to restore funding for state historic sites, which makes sense, but the two million dollars to pay for it came for the North Carolina Housing Trust Fund, the state’s already underfunded nationally recognized affordable housing program.

Those are the kinds of choices that lawmakers are forced to make when legislative leaders refuse to consider any new revenue sources or even keep tax rates at current levels for two more years.

All that, the amendments and eight hours of debate, almost seemed to make people forget that overall the House budget is a disaster. It slashes 12,000 jobs in education alone, cripples the state’s ability to enforce environmental protections, and slashes mental health funding by $60 million.

House Majority Leader Paul Stam bristled at suggestions that the budget makes draconian cuts and says that it merely right-sizes state government and patronizingly added that “grandmother will not be taken in a wheelchair and thrown down the stairs as a result of this budget.”

No, but grandmother may lose her vision care or dental services and her 2nd grade granddaughter won’t have a teacher assistant in the classroom to help her read.

And let’s hope that there’s no toxic contamination in the stream near grandmother’s house because there won’t be anybody to investigate it if Stam and his colleagues get their way.

Don’t be misled by the passage of a few reasonable amendments and Stam’s claims of moderation. The House is poised to pass a radical budget that would cost of thousands of workers their jobs, threaten the most vulnerable people in the state, and seriously damage vital public institutions from public schools to the university system.

That’s not rightsizing, that’s threatening our future.

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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