State budget debate presents false choices

By: - June 29, 2015 3:15 pm

With lawmakers set to hammer out a final state budget, North Carolinians are hearing a lot of misleading claims about the inability to afford important investments in the state’s economic future. Unmentioned is that the state’s constrained finances – at a time when the economy is improving – stem from the decision to sharply cut taxes over the past three years instead of building a strong foundation for lasting growth.

So when policymakers say that making investments in one area of the budget limit the ability to invest in other areas, they are right in lamenting limited resources. But they are offering false choices because they leave out the fact that the limits on resources available to help North Carolinians build a secure future come from House and Senate leadership prioritizing tax cuts over investments that drive the economy forward. And these constraints are likely to continue far into the future because the proposed House and Senate budgets include tax cuts that cost anywhere from $650 million to $1 billion over the next two years, depending on which version of the budget the two houses eventually agree to enact.

By locking themselves into these false choices legislators fail to acknowledge that halting further tax cuts would help ensure that schools have the resources they need and that important supports are available to promote healthy and safe communities.

Let’s sort out some of these false choices and shed light on how different it could be if the state had taken the common-sense path of avoiding such damaging tax cuts.

  • Classroom Teachers vs. Teachers Assistants. Today, our schools have nearly 4,800 fewer classroom teacher positions and more than 7,000 fewer state-funded teachers’ assistants than in 2009, which is especially bad considering there are 43,000 more students in our schools. The Senate budget drastically reduces funding for teachers’ assistants and provides some additional funding for classroom teachers. But neither the House nor Senate budget would restore the number of teachers and assistants to the 2009 level. Without tax cuts, North Carolina could invest in teachers and teachers’ assistants, providing the next generation a better shot at getting the skills to compete in a global economy.

  • Pay increase for public employees vs. teachers. Both the House and Senate budgets bring the starting salary for beginning teachers up to $35,000 from $33,000 and provide pay increases for some teachers. The House budget also includes a modest 2 percent pay increase for state police, community college faculty, and all other employees at state agencies. The Senate budget provides pay increases to a much smaller number of public employees. Without tax cuts, North Carolina could help more public servants support their families and participate more fully in the state’s economy.
  • Tuition increase at community colleges vs. faculty pay raises. Since 2009, in-state community college tuition has increased by more than 70 percent. Both the House and Senate budgets would put the total tuition hike at 81 percent since 2009. The Senate budget would use the resulting savings to offset the cost of providing pay raises to faculty. Without tax cuts, North Carolina could make tuition more affordable and help ensure faculty members earn a living wage.
  • A 21st century court system vs. specialized court programs. The need to upgrade and modernize the state court system has been neglected in recent years. The House budget would update the courts’ technology system. No funding for drug treatment courts – a more cost-effective treatment option for drug offenders – is in the House or Senate budgets. Without tax cuts, North Carolina could bring the court system into the 21st century and adopt measures to help prevent offenders from returning to prison.
  • Community economic development vs. broadband infrastructure. In recent years, state lawmakers eliminated the Support Center, which assists small business lending in low- and moderate- income communities. The House budget partially restores funding to the Support Center and includes funding to provide access to broadband connectivity for all public schools. The Senate budget does not include funding for either. Without tax cuts, North Carolina could do more to help distressed communities across the state promote job creation, attract investment capital, and enhance the quality of life.

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