As a colleague of mine remarked, Republicans' motto as they saddle up to take control of North Carolina's General Assembly could be, "Do less with less."
We're about to get an earful of that old conservative anthem celebrating the virtues of limited government and low taxes. And on principle, who's to disagree? Nobody wants more government than we need, and nobody wants to pay taxes swollen because of bureaucratic inefficiency or bloat.
But that doesn't mean the philosophical divide between conservatives and liberals (which more or less correlates with the partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats) over the core issue of government's proper size and mission is a trivial one. It's all about parsing needs and wants, and then figuring out who should pay how much.
Those in line to pay the most often argue that the state can get by with doing less. Yet when the budget knife starts cutting, who gets hurt? If it's the young and the vulnerable, the cutters have been too clumsy.
The two sides' beliefs as to how the public is best served are about to be vigorously tested - perhaps no more so than in the arena of education.
Together, the state's educational enterprises - public schools, community colleges, universities - swallow the largest share of money routed each year into the General Fund. For example, the budget for July 2009 through June 2010 set aside $7.4 billion for the schools, $1 billion for the community colleges and $2.7 billion for the UNC system. The total budget (this was current operations, not capital): $19 billion.
That budget was prepared under severe duress as state revenues plunged amid the recession. The situation was even worse this year. Helped by federal stimulus funds, legislators and Gov. Beverly Perdue were able to stave off serious cuts in public school expenditures.
For the next budget cycle, however, the immovable object of education costs is about to meet the irresistible force of a monster shortfall that looks to be in the range of $3.5 billion. And then there's irresistible force No. 2: Republicans' determination to put the budget in balance, as the state is obligated to do, via spending cuts alone. They've as much as said no new taxes except over their dead bodies.
Of course nobody should be eager to raise taxes while jobs are scarce, families are struggling to keep their homes and companies are caught in the recession's downdraft. But especially when it comes to the state's investment in our schools, the picture without some kind of revenue infusion can't help but look grim. So much money will be needed to close the shortfall that it will be hard to avoid whacking into the budget's largest line item.
The bitter irony is that, as the Public School Forum of North Carolina points out, this has never been a state that shot the moon with its public school outlays.
Now, says the Forum, which has kept a sharp eye on the state's education scene since the mid-1980s, the budget squeeze could push North Carolina close to the bottom in a ranking of per-pupil expenditures.
How could that happen? The Forum says North Carolina during the last fiscal year ranked 42nd in state and local outlays for school operations - $8,743 per student. The U.S. average was $10,190.
Nobody would suggest that every state toward the top of the list is getting good value in spending more than we do. But what if North Carolina did find itself trailing the pack? That not only would signal real deficiencies in school quality, but also would amount to a failure of our responsibility to the state's youth. It's not the sort of thing businesses or families deciding where to locate like to see.
The legislature's new Republican bosses will be perfectly entitled to look for ways to make state government more cost-effective. They should. And their aversion to taxes should mean a disciplined approach to spending. But just because the Democrats have taken a broader view of the government's responsibilities, that doesn't mean they've necessarily been undisciplined.
This is the fork in the philosophical road. The belief that investments in public education should be generous - they are, after all, investments with a proven record of success - does not translate into a belief in waste, feather-bedding and inane curriculums.
School systems should be well-enough funded so that every student has a capable teacher in an uncrowded classroom. Right-sizing should not always mean down-sizing and operating on the cheap. And the same applies to other state services such as higher education, mental health, environmental protection and the courts.
Let's hope that an improving economy takes some of the pressure off the state's budget-balancers. And if the Republicans can look beyond the self-serving calls for spending and tax cuts echoing from the special interests who propelled their campaigns, perhaps they will be able to reconcile their sincere beliefs in limited government with a budget strategy that can at least come close to meeting the state's critical needs.
Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at email@example.com.