Fitzsimon: N.C. Senate’s snarling, regressive budget
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s office issued a press release last Sunday night about the Senate budget, a few hours before the actual budget itself was online for reporters and citizens to read.
Berger’s Chief of Staff Jim Blaine couldn’t understand why reporters also wanted to see the actual budget document at the same time, to fully understand the decisions the Senate leaders made in secret in the last few weeks about how to spend more than $20 billion of taxpayer money.
Blaine even accused one reporter of whining because he insisted on the seeing the budget, not just the official spin.
It was certainly a minor moment in the grand scheme of things, but a telling one, as was the first quote in the release from Berger, which did not extol the virtues of the Senate proposal but instead attacked previous state leaders for their push to “tax, spend and borrow their way to prosperity.”
It’s the perfect window through which to understand the Senate budget proposal. It is a mean-spirited, arrogant and snarling partisan budget that not only falls woefully short of making vital investments in education and human services, but seems to make major funding decisions and policy changes out of spite, not careful consideration.
The budget eliminates more than 5,000 jobs, including 4,000 teacher assistant positions in the second the third grades. Imagine the headlines if a private employer announced the closing a facility where 5,000 people worked.
Taking teacher assistants out of classrooms in the early grades also seems to contradict Berger’s own education reform proposal to hold back children who aren’t able to read adequately by the end of the third grade, but this is not a budget based on logic.
It’s also not a spending plan that comes close to addressing the state’s needs. In fact, despite the headlines that the proposal slightly increases state spending levels over last year, it actually falls well short of making the investments in schools and health care to keep state services at their current and woefully inadequate levels and comes nowhere near restoring the massive cuts made during the last few years.
Senate leaders want to slash funding for N.C. Pre-K and instead shift the funding to child care subsidies. Apparently, they aren’t thrilled with at-risk kids getting the extra help they need before they start school.
The budget makes it harder for low-income pregnant women to access health care services, closes alcohol and drug treatment centers and puts harsh limits on how many times people on Medicaid can see a doctor.
It denies services to children and vulnerable adults, requires people on public assistance to pay for drug tests when they apply and removes limits on class sizes in the early grades in public school.
The plan would wipe out many of the state’s successful economic and community development efforts and end all state funding the widely recognized Rural Economic Development Center that happens to be controlled by a longtime Democrat, but sets up a new rural economic development initiative in the Department of Commerce that Republicans can control.
Partisan control is a major theme of the plan. It eliminates special judges appointed by former Gov. Beverly Perdue and transfers the State Bureau of Investigation from Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office to the Department of Public Safety that is part of the McCrory Administration. Interestingly, McCrory himself seemed caught off guard by the plan and the law enforcement community opposes it.
It does not include a dime in compensation for the victims of the state’s horrific eugenics program, funding that, to his credit, McCrory included in his budget proposal and that House leaders have supported in the past. Senate leaders have blocked funding for eugenics victims in the past and seem ready to block it again this year.
And finally, the budget sets aside funding for the Senate’s startlingly regressive tax plan that would force low-income families to pay more for groceries to give millionaires a $56,000 a year tax break.
Budgets at their core are basically a list of priorities. Now we know what’s most important to the current Senate leadership - slashing services for kids and vulnerable adults and making low-income families pay higher taxes, all to give the wealthy a massive tax break and to settle partisan political scores.
Snarling and mean-spirited indeed.
Chris Fitzsimon is the executive director of N.C. PolicyWatch.