The best thing that can be said about the state budget on the cusp of final approval by the General Assembly is that it could have been worse.
Some of the most mean-spirited or ill-advised cuts that were in versions originally passed by the state Senate and the state House disappeared or were softened in the final budget draft hammered out – as always and frustratingly behind closed doors by a handful of legislative leaders. And there are some very positive aspects to the final plan.
Let’s start with the positives. Teachers will get an average pay hike of 3.3 percent, most other state employees will get a $1,000 raise and retirees will see a 1 percent, permanent increase in their pensions. For the retirees, that is a notable improvement over the Senate budget – which provided no increase.
The final budget plan provides for an added $1 million for the UNC-Chapel Hill medical school to begin adding to its annual class of first-year students, currently capped at 180. The university’s business school gets money to begin planning a new building much needed to serve its expanding enrollment. The Governor’s School, which since its inception under Gov. Terry Sanford in the 1960s has offered a widely praised summer program for high school students, survives despite Senate budget-writers’ efforts to torpedo it. The Wright School in Durham, a perennial target of the Senate, is retained in the final plan.
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And the budget includes a policy change, elusive for years, to raise the age at which teenagers are charged as adults for minor, non-violent crimes from 16 to 18, making North Carolina the last state to “raise the age.”
But beyond the pay raise for teachers, the budget continues the legislature’s parsimonious toward K-12 education. Funding for textbooks and other classroom materials barely hits pre-recession levels, and there’s no allocation to help local school districts deal with a reduction in class size that, while postponed, will soon require local districts to come up with money to cover the cost.
The final budget continues the march toward tax cuts that will hobble the state finanancially in the future, including cutting a corporate tax rate that already was the lowest in the country. To be fair, a drop in the individual tax rate will benefit taxpayers at all levels, but also will likewise crimp future revenues.
And cuts to budgets in the attorney general’s office, the governor’s office and at the UNC-CH law school (although a cut of only $500,000 rather than the original proposal of $4 million), smack of petty punitiveness toward political foes.
Yes, the budget could have been much worse. But it could have been so much better.