Don’t be misled by the headlines or the spin; the final budget is far worse than it looks

By: - June 20, 2017 2:42 pm

Most of the initial headlines about the final budget agreement announced Monday afternoon by legislative leaders were ones they could have written themselves, touting raises for teachers and state employees, a cost of living increase for state retirees and hundreds of millions of dollars more in funding for education.

Even many Raleigh insiders who should know better were praising the overall agreement for the few bright spots in it, like the provision ending the policy of automatically trying 16 and 17-year olds who commit crimes as adults.

Some were breathing a sigh of relief that absurd cuts were reduced, like the proposed $4 million reduction to the UNC School of Law in the Senate budget, which ended up as a $500,000 cut in the final agreement.

But why are legislators reducing funding at all to the law school, other than to punish the school for its critics of the decisions made by the General Assembly?

A half a million-dollar cut to the state’s flagship public law school is not something to take lightly. It is a disgrace.

But then there is very little in this budget that is reasonable or that moves the state forward or addresses any significant challenges.

It is the latest devastating chapter in an all-out ideological crusade to remake North Carolina that Republicans have waged since 2011.

That is apparent in the details. The final budget spitefully cuts almost a million dollars out of the office of Gov. Roy Cooper while giving Lt. Gov. Dan Forest a new administrative position and funding 10 new positions for the new Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson.

There is more funding for the unaccountable school voucher scheme, the creation of sketchy Education Savings Accounts, deep cuts to the Department of Public Instruction and a provision to make it harder for schools with high percentages of low-income students to do well in the state’s punitive A-F grading system.

The budget also calls for an audit of DPI and counts on a million dollars of savings from it next year before the audit has been conducted.

Not only does the war on K-12 public education continue, the university system takes a hit too with another “discretionary cut” after the budget boasts of funding enrollment increases.

The budget does not include a mean-spirited proposal by the Senate to deny food benefits to 133,000 low-income North Carolinians but the final agreement does end the funding stream for legal services for low-income people, a stunning decision that was never openly discussed in a committee or on the House or Senate floor.

There are plenty more dastardly details, but the lasting damage comes from the big decisions and assumptions made by legislative leaders that are often overlooked among all the analysis of who won and who lost and which group of workers received the biggest though still inadequate raises.

A $1,000 pay hike for state workers and a one percent cost of living increase for state retirees is not much to celebrate, especially in a year with a budget surplus thanks to the national economic recovery. The much heralded teacher pay hike is not enough either, with many teachers barely receiving a raise at all.

That’s because legislative leaders once again put ideology ahead of the state’s needs and tax cuts ahead of classrooms and students and families.

The budget cuts the corporate and personal incomes taxes again, giving yet another windfall to the wealthy and also increases the standard deduction, a clumsy attempt to spread out the tax cuts to low-income people who would be far better served by restoring and expanding the state Earned Income Tax Credit that lawmakers abolished a few years ago.

And the tax cuts are back loaded. They don’t take effect until 2018, the second year of the biennial budget, setting up a budget shortfall that the nonpartisan legislative staff has predicted from the eventual loss of a billion dollars a year when the tax breaks are fully enacted.

Gov. Roy Cooper said Tuesday afternoon the final budget was worse than the plan passed by the House or the Senate and called it the “most fiscally irresponsible” budget he has ever seen. He’s right.

Cooper also points out that the tax break for millionaires is 85 times larger than the break given to middle class families.

Lawmakers boast of putting millions more in the state’s saving account, even while denying many teachers a decent raise and demanding more education cuts and refusing to adequately fund hurricane relief efforts that the Trump Administration has shockingly rejected.

Most distressing of all, the final budget agreement continues the dramatic shift of North Carolina to a state that fails to invest adequately in its people and the institutions that that serve them by putting tax cuts and right-wing ideology in front of education and human services and infrastructure vital to economic development.

Do not be misled by the headlines or the spin. The final budget is far worse than it looks from the outside, despite a few noteworthy provisions like raising the age for juvenile offenders.

Not cutting as much as projected from vital programs that need more investments is not a victory for anybody except the cynics who put this atrocious plan together.

Well-meaning folks who claim otherwise aren’t looking carefully enough.

They cannot see the forest for the half of the trees left standing. And the forest itself is being systematically destroyed. Sadly, that is the devastating new normal in Raleigh.

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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