The vision of North Carolina shared by the Republican leaders in the General Assembly who shaped a budget that shortly will be on its way to Gov. Beverly Perdue is shortsighted at best, catastrophic at worst and certain to hurt public education at all levels.
Dramatic budget cuts will reduce the availability of health services for those who are in critical need of them by cutting Medicaid, put thousands of state employees out of work and restrict the state's capacity to deal with a host of challenges. There will be an additional impact on private employers whose payrolls are dependent on state contracts. The services some of those private companies provide will diminish or disappear.
Yes, the budget must be lean, and yes, a degree of hardship is inevitable with a $2.5 billion shortfall caused by the poor economy. But some of the decisions made by legislative leaders are hard to swallow.
For example: Community colleges are supposed to be able to react quickly if a prospective employer being recruited by the state needs specific training for workers. The colleges are job engines, in other words, in a time when jobs are priceless. Yet funding would be cut, on the grounds that available money remains unspent. This should be a moment to up the ante, not scale it back.
Consider also the shell game of shifting responsibility for some expenses from the state to local school boards. That could have dire consequences because many local governments are just as strapped as the state is. There's nothing under those shells.
Democratic Sen. Martin Nesbitt of Asheville, leader of the Senate minority, noted earlier this week that cuts in public schools will drop North Carolina to 49th in the country in per-pupil spending. Will the Republican boast be, "Hey, at least we're not last"? Perhaps they'll use that as the new license plate slogan.
But the schools aren't all that's at risk in this budget that allows a $1 billion-a-year sales tax boost of one cent on the dollar to expire, and incredibly, further reduces revenue with a tax cut for small business. Having taken charge of both houses of the General Assembly for the first time in a century, the GOP leadership plans to feast on regulations pertaining to business, in the name of being "business-friendly" in a state that already ranks at or near the top in that category.
It doesn't stop there: Long annoyed by the "tree-huggers" at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources who have struggled to keep the state's air and water clean, and to protect the spectacular assets of our beaches and mountains, the GOP is trying to gut DENR's authority. In exchange for the ideological satisfaction of getting back at environmentalists, finite resources that also happen to be crucial to protecting the tourism industry will be at risk.
Virtually every government department that serves the people suffers, and so will those who have counted on that service (the poor who need Medicaid, for just one example).
North Carolina has long prided itself on being a place of hope, promise and unlimited horizons for citizens, particularly those young people whose dreams are nurtured in public education.
This budget will diminish hope, puncture promise, lower horizons and kill those dreams. It will change the face, and the heart, of this goodliest land. But it is not too late to do better.