A budget at least better

Jun. 11, 2014 @ 06:53 PM

The state House released its version of a budget on the heels of proposals already put forth by Gov. Pat McCrory and by the state Senate.

In several key points, the House leadership’s proposal treads between the other two. And it may offer, given the legislative realities, the most promising path to a budget that accomplishes at least some of what we would like to see.

The House budget is far from restoring frayed funding for education at every level, for important social services and for other areas. But it comes closer than the governor’s plan to what might actually be doable, and avoids some of the more radical blows from the senate version.

Among the most encouraging aspects of the House version is its approach to teacher pay – pay that is certain to rise as legislators sense that a significant majority of their constituents believe that it is too low. The House budget funds a raise – averaging 5 percent – that is higher than the governor’s proposal but not quite half the Senate’s.

The House, unlike the Senate, would not require teachers to give up the career status they earn after four years on the job. Ending that status, also known as tenure, has been a bitter flash point. Extracting that issue from the pay debate is a sound move.

The House’s proposal to pay for the teacher raises, while far better than the Senate plan that sharply cut teacher assistants, is problematic. It relies on greater proceeds from the state’s lottery – increases projected as the result of doubling the lottery’s advertising budget.

That is, to use a reaction many have expressed, a gamble. And it is ironic, coming from Republican legislators who strongly opposed the lottery’s creation.

But governing is often about finding the least bad alternative, not the perfect one. Its risk aside, it is a better alternative than slashing needed spending elsewhere in the budget.

It’s worth noting that in the cascade of concerns over cuts to education, it seems that less attention is being paid to the effect the current budget has had and what the proposed budget will have on some of our state’s poorest residents.

The House budget takes a less Draconian approach to human services, stanching some of the bleeding from last year’s cuts, but not going so far as to repair the damage done. Most significantly, the House version, unlike its Senate counterpart, does not favor hefty cuts to Medicaid, the federal program that serves low-income parents, children, seniors and people with disabilities.

The long-term negative financial and social consequences of continuing to pass legislation that cuts further holes in safety nets for the elderly, poor and disabled should continue to be an important point of consideration in budget discussions.

It’s hard to say what will finally emerge, and given the backroom negotiations that will ensue over the next couple of weeks, new ideas – good and bad – could emerge.

But the House budget at least gives the sense of where compromise might lead.