Preparing and adopting North Carolinas state budget is all about making choices how much money to raise, who to raise it from and what to spend it on. A conscientious budget seeks to address the most needs at the lowest cost. But those making the decisions must be mindful that aiming too low can have lasting consequences for the states well-being.
This year, thats the risk.
The Republican-controlled General Assembly, whose job is to approve a budget that will take effect July 1, is now at that point where the cards are on the table.
First the House approved its version, snubbing Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdues call for a slight sales tax increase to help schools, colleges and universities continue to carry out their vital missions.
However, House members did show that they had heard the pleas from school boards, educators and parents to spare school systems from drastic cutbacks.
They have proposed $333 million in what could be called make-up funding for the schools $74 million to keep school systems from having to cut that much from their own budgets, plus $259 million to compensate for the pending loss of federal stimulus money.
Without that additional state aid, its hard to see how schools across the state will be able to avoid whacking even deeper into their teaching ranks than theyve already had to because of budget cuts tied to the recession.
In the Senates proposed budget, up for consideration this week, the $259 million is nowhere to be found. That does allow a focus on Senate President Pro Tem Phil Bergers ambitious program to make sure more kids are reading by the end of third grade a worthy goal, budgeted at $47.4 million. But overall, the schools would take another hurtful hit, while the UNC system would fare somewhat better than under the House plan.
Naturally, the Senates Republican leaders also ignore Democratic arguments that some extra revenue should be part of the budget-balancing formula. The GOP has planted its anti-tax increase flag in concrete, even when its obvious that there simply isnt enough revenue to meet the states valid responsibilities.
Imagine someone trying to wallpaper a room without enough paper to go around. Every bare patch could stand for a state program forced to scale back or shut down. For example, unless theres a last-minute change, thats exactly what would happen under the Senate budget to the program aimed at helping people stop using tobacco. Surely keeping that effort going, at a cost of $17.3 million a year, would pay dividends in lower health care costs.
Pay toll ahead
Republican senators might rather sleep with a cottonmouth under the covers than raise taxes, but when it comes to fees specifically, tolls paid by ferry riders the thinking is that any free ride should cost money and any cheap ride should cost more.
Gov. Perdue has rightly balked at starting toll collections on ferries used by commuters, mostly ordinary folks in eastern counties where the recession knocked many families for a loop. The House decided to join the governor on that high ground. Senators so far seem inclined to stick it to people who are ferry customers not by choice but by necessity.
The usual course of business with different budget versions in play would be for each chamber to approve its bill and then for key legislators to work toward compromise.
But with so many needs and with revenue so tight, budget compromises are destined to leave important state business in the lurch. In particular, that means the enterprise of education so crucial to young people and the states future prosperity is in line to absorb another body blow. Legislators who can manage to take the long view will step up to keep that from happening.