The wide gap between rhetoric and reality

By: - June 1, 2011 6:55 am

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger calls the latest version of the Senate budget “a great budget for the people of North Carolina.” You can bet that plenty more superlatives will be tossed around about the spending plan in the next few days during House and Senate floor debate.

It’s a telling commentary on this legislative session and the people who are leading it that a budget that slashes education, human services and environmental protections is touted as great for the people the lawmakers represent.

But that is par for the course this year, when rhetoric and reality have never been further apart.

The budget is simply a list of choices and the most important one made by legislative leaders came before the session started, their refusal to consider any new revenue or even leave tax rates the same to protect schools and vital services.

That meant the entire debate would be about what would be cut, what vital program would be damaged or abolished, and what vital service to the most vulnerable people would be eliminated.

That’s what all the secret budget meetings this past weekend were about, how to shift money around to buy a few Democratic votes, a bridge here, a prison there, no toll on this ferry or that one. Budget writers restored funding for teacher assistants but paid for it by forcing local schools to make more deep cuts of their own.

The other theme in this year’s budget debate is the insistence by legislative leaders that they know better about the needs of education and human services and public safety than the people who provide them every day.

A recent WRAL-TV story about the proposed cuts in the juvenile justice system is a perfect example. It is a microcosm of much of the budget debate this year.

Juvenile Justice Secretary Linda Hayes told the reporter that she is worried that the proposed cuts to the system she oversees are not only unwise but will be dangerous for juvenile offenders and the public. The budget calls for closing facilities, cutting prevention programs and reducing court counselors.

Here is Senate Appropriations Chair Neal Hunt’s response.

“The (young people) that need to be there will be there. The ones that are there will be treated properly. We’ll take care of our young people, no matter what.”

Chief District Judge Marcia Morey, who knows a lot more about the juvenile justice system than Hunt, says that’s impossible and that the proposed cuts will be devastating to the kids in trouble and the communities where they live.

Hunt of course, doesn’t buy it and responds to Morey like the Republicans respond to every claim that their cuts will cause problems.

He tells WRAL “I’ve probably got 5,000 to 10,000 petitions to not cut a particular program. I’ve yet to get one saying we’ll help by taking a little cut.”

“It’s just human nature to want to protect your turf.” “I’m not saying the need is not there. In many cases it is,” he added. “Ultimately, there are cuts that have to be made.”

That’s some turf Morey is protecting, the rehabilitation of troubled kids and the safety of the community. That is one selfish judge.

Most importantly, Hunt is simply wrong. The cuts do NOT have to be made.

Hunt and his GOP colleagues could delay tax cuts until next year.  That could leave the 2009 temporary taxes in place to raise enough revenue to keep court counselors available for kids and their families and keep the treatment facilities open that help kids turn their lives around.

That would mean Republicans would have to put the interests of troubled kids over their tax promises to right-wing anti-government groups.

And it would mean that they would have to admit that the first decision they made this budget year was the wrong one.

No way. They’d rather brag about the budget and keep telling us how great it is for North Carolina. But we know better.

And deep down, they know it too.

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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