Locking in the meager level of investments in the Great Recession

By: - November 12, 2015 1:43 pm


As the political season heats up and spin machines start cranking out the talking points about what happened in this year’s legislative session, here are a few things to remember that are not in dispute.

The budget passed by the General Assembly this year not only spends less as a share of the state’s economy than the year before, it marks the seventh year in a row that spending has declined as a share of personal income.

That may sound a little wonky but it means that state lawmakers and Gov. Pat McCrory have decided not to invest enough in education, health care, and other vital services to keep up with the state’s growth.

It also means that the folks currently in charge in Raleigh have decided not to do what most other states did after the Great Recession, return important investments to pre-recession levels.

The current regime didn’t really mind that the previous majority was forced to make deep cuts when the recession devastated state revenues. The new crowd in charge saw that as an opportunity, not a problem.

When the economy began to recover, they didn’t invest more in schools or human services or criminal justice, they used the revenue to cut taxes in 2013 and 2015, primarily for corporations and the wealthy.

That’s why there are 7,500 fewer teacher assistants in the classroom than before the recession began and why per-pupil spending is now $500 less than it was in 2008 when you adjust for inflation.

The folks in charge will tell you they have increased funding for schools, but per pupil spending fell by 14.5 percent from 2008 to 2015 in inflation-adjusted dollars, a bigger drop than in all but six other states.

In 2008, North Carolina’s average teacher salary was close to the national average. Six years later, long after the recession ended, it had fallen to 47th. That’s what spending billions on tax cuts will do for you.

Lawmakers did raise the starting teacher salary in the last two years but many veteran teachers received little or no raise at all, leaving the average salaries still lagging well behind levels in most other states.

What has happened is that legislative leaders and Gov. McCrory have locked in the meager investment levels of the Great Recession. That became the new baseline.

And in some cases it became a level from which to cut even more. Judging by their budgets, the folks in charge apparently think fewer at-risk kids need access to pre-K than seven years ago and that students and teachers need fewer textbooks and supplies.

They apparently believe that not as many children and single mothers need help with child care so parents can work or go back to school to learn a new skill.

And their budgets show that they believe the university system was funded too generously and that students and their families paid far too little in tuition.

Remember all that when the rhetoric heats up in a few months and the boasting by legislative leaders about their “accomplishments” grows louder and shriller.

What they actually accomplished was making the Great Recession permanent when it comes how we fund our schools and universities and other services that vital to people’s lives.

And that is hardly something to brag about.

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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