State House leaders finished doling out details on that chamber’s proposed budget on Wednesday, May 31, and while it falls short in several areas of meeting North Carolina’s needs, it continues to bear out the description of an area legislator late last week.
“This budget is much, much better than the Senate budget,” said Rep. Verla Insko, a Chapel Hill Democrat.
Both chambers’ continue the Republicans’ pursuit of lower taxes – what a writer for the N. C. Council of Churches this week called “tax-cut addiction.” The House, however, would put a smaller dent in our tax revenues. The House plan would reduce revenue by about $122 million in the next fiscal year and $234 million in the year after. Proposed Senate cuts would drain nearly three times that much revenue in the fiscal year beginning in July and more than three times the House’s reductions in the next fiscal year.
House budget writers would provide somewhat greater raises for most state employees, would give 300,000 retirees a one-time boost in their pension payments and would protect food-stamp benefits for some 133,000 people who would lose them under new Senate eligibility requirements. The House budget would continue the Governor’s School, a Terry-Sanford-era summer program for gifted high school students. The Senate’s proposal to eliminate the school has sparked a vigorous pushback by the school’s alumni and other supporters. The House budget would more aggressively reduce a waiting list for pre-kindergarten slots.
Critically for this area, the House would eliminate a cap on state funding for light-rail projects, a cap that imperiled the Durham-Chapel Hill light rail project local leaders are eager to undertake.
Of course, now that legislators have three disparate budget proposals in front of them – the Senate budget, the House draft which should be finalized this week and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposal – the real budget negotiations begin. As is customary in Raleigh, the real wheeling and dealing will be primarily behind closed doors. The absence of transparency is a long-standing frustration, not just to ordinary citizens but to rank-and-file legislators that often don’t see the details on which they are voting until the last moment.
As the final stages of this year’s budget began, we couldn’t help but savor a remark by four-term former Gov. Jim Hunt. “This is an amazing time, the national economy’s come back and we’ve benefited from it,” Hunt told the Associated Press in an interview shortly after his 80th birthday May 16. “This can be a very special time if we grab it, if we take advantage of what’s out there.”
It’s unlikely the General Assembly will do that, but Hunt is right.