While we are all ready for a break, this week will require each of us to dig a little deeper and make a few more calls on a couple of very important issues facing North Carolina.

North Carolina State Budget

The Wake County Democrats summed up what happened last week very nicely. Here is what they said:

“After two weeks of haggling out the differences in the versions passed by the House and Senate, legislative leaders released the final version of the 2017-19 budget late Monday night. Generally when conferees get together, they come up with a compromise between the two extremes. But somehow the conference report is even worse than the bills passed by either the House or Senate.

That’s because conferees larded the budget with almost $100 million in pork, mostly to powerful Republicans’ districts. And they added tons of cuts and policy provisions which were in neither version that went through committee hearings and floor debate previously. Conference reports head straight for the floor, with no amendments allowed. And there was even less time for debate this week than on the original budgets, if that is possible.”

We have broken down the good, the bad and the ugly of the state budget below. The budget is currently sitting with Governor Cooper who has announced his intent to veto it unless changes are made regarding the tax plan, education funding and access to rural broadband as outlined in his original budget proposal. With significant federal budget cuts looming it is irresponsible to create almost $1 Billion of cuts in the next two years locally.

More of This Please!

  1. Most public school teachers will receive a pay hike of 9.6 percent over the next two years, which is a significant jump. However, starting teachers and our most experienced teachers receive little or no raises. Total education spending came in about 30% less than Gov. Cooper’s proposed spending. ($755m to $520m) and per pupil spending is still 6.7% below pre-Recession level.  In the spring of 2016, Senator Phil Berger unveiled a plan to bring average teacher pay to $54,224 in the 17-18 school year. This budget fails to meet Senator Berger’s promise.
  2. Teenagers aged 16 and 17 will no longer be automatically tried as adults. North Carolina was the last state to pass this reform.
  3. The legislature is moving to eliminate the waiting list for the statewide pre-kindergarten program. Last year there were 27,019 children in NC Pre-K classes and 4,688 were on the waiting list. This budget has designated money to erase about 75 percent of the waiting list for the 4-year-olds. BUT, 2/3 of the funding comes from a federal block grant (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF) that is threatened by federal budget cuts. So will we really see this happen?
  4. An effort is underway to help the state’s five historically black universities, including offering tuition reductions and special scholarships for various campuses.
  5. Funding was continued for the North Carolina Governor’s School, a pioneering summer program for gifted high school students that was on the Senate chopping block.
  6. The legislature will cut $500,000 from the UNC law school budget, instead of the $4 million cut proposed by the Senate. Apparently the GOP is not happy with an outspoken liberal law professor exercising his 1st Amendment rights.

C’mon, Really?

  1. No funding for a classroom supplies stipend of $150 per teacher that was proposed by Governor Cooper. The budget also does not include funding for specialist (Art/Music/PE/world language) teachers when class size restrictions take effect – even though intent language was promised. According to Berger, this was an “oversight” to be corrected in the final version. With all the attention on HB13 this year, how do they forget to add in “intent to fund” language?
  2. No more State Retirement Benefits for State Employees starting after 2021.
  3. Education Vouchers
    1. Creates Education Savings Accounts for students with disabilities. This will take the form of a taxpayer-funded $9,000 debit card given directly to parents for educational expenses. Parents of students with serious disabilities can receive these funds even if their children are already receiving Disabilities Grants. Management may be contracted to a private financial management firm. Kindergartners will be eligible for this program. Opponents say this paves the way for taxpayer money to be drained from the public education general fund and used for private and/or religious programs, leaving our public schools that much more desperate for funds.
    2. Adds $10M per year to a voucher program until 2027-28 when it will plateau at $144.8M annually; also makes that funding part of the base budget going forward.
    3. Creates a task force to study accountability within the voucher program, which has been missing to date. So funding is guaranteed even though the results of the voucher program are unknown.
  4. From the News & Observer, here are the cuts and increases to the Department of Public Instruction:
    1. Cuts NCDPI by 6.2% and 13.9% over the next 2 years. More here.
    2. Gives the Superintendent of Public Instruction $1,000,000 to pay for an audit of NCDPI
    3. Gives the superintendent $700,000 for up to 10 new exempt positions within his office, with no approval from the State Board
    4. Also gives the superintendent $300,000 for his lawsuit against the State Board and…
    5. Prohibits the State Board from using any state funds for private counsel in litigation
  5. Significant funding increase for anti-choice pregnancy resource centers, from $300,000 per year to $1.9 million! This includes a pilot program for a group out of Texas called The Human Coalition.  Funding will also go towards additional ultrasound equipment and to launch a “continuum of care” program in Raleigh. Keep in mind that the Federal Senate Better Care program has a plan to de-fund Planned Parenthood altogether, so they will essentially be eliminating funding for any provider which offers constitutionally guaranteed choices to women.
  6. Tax Cuts: This budget continues Thom Tillis’ Conservative Revolution to reduce individual income tax rates to 5.25 percent from 5.499 percent and the corporate rate to 2.5 percent from 3 percent in the second year, which will cost the state $900 million annually. We must continue to ask ourselves and our elected officials, how will this newfound money create lasting economic and social development?  For instance, will those thousands of children on the wait list for Pre-K see the benefits of an extra $10 or $20,000 in the pockets of the highest NC earners?
  7. PORK: (Hypocrisy alert. Both parties are guilty of this practice of greasing the palms, and paying for votes with taxpayer money. Does that make it right? This is a lot of money to play around with, with no understanding of the greater impact the investment will have on our state, and what accountability will be provided.) Sen. Berger and House Speaker Moore and their lieutenants went behind closed doors and at the last minute doled out $100 million in taxpayer money that was in neither the House nor Senate budgets. They picked out nonprofits in certain counties to reward allies and try to gain others and to take care of their own communities. most notably giving a “downtown revitalization grant” to an unincorporated area in Moore’s district that has no downtown to revitalize.

#WTFGOP?

  1. Legislators whacked funding of Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein’s Department of Justice by $10 million, in a move that Stein said will force him to lay off one-third of his lawyers in the department. The move came as Stein has declined to represent the Republican position in court actions involving election laws, efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and President Donald Trump’s travel ban. The unprecedented and blatantly partisan budget slashing was not in the House or Senate budgets. It came out of nowhere, added in the secret backroom negotiations between legislative leaders. Berger stunningly defended the cuts to the Attorney General’s office by saying he didn’t like the way Stein was doing his job.
  2. Funding for Legal Aid as we know it is no more. Currently the state spends $1.7 million to help finance three legal aid organizations, primarily for female clients in cases of domestic abuse and such. We need to keep in mind that the Trump administration wants to kill the Federal Legal Services Corp., which provides federal funding.
  3. In a similar vein, Gov. Cooper yet again found himself a target of the petty, power-hungry Republicans, who cut nearly $1 million from his office. But most gallingly, the governor is now prohibited from using his own lawyers without the General Assembly’s permission. And he is effectively banned from hiring outside counsel (which he has used to successfully sue the General Assembly over its unconstitutional laws), a right the legislature has retained for itself. Cooper would ordinarily sue immediately to regain a check on legislative power grabs–but can he now?

If you are interested in comparing all the budget versions, the Governor’s office has put together a Budget Comparison Chart: https://governor-new.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/documents/files/170621_Gov%20Budget%20v%20House%20and%20Senate%20Budgets_Side%20By%20Side.pdf