The General Assembly labored and brought forth a budget, balanced as the state constitution says it must be. The deed was done in timely fashion, with days to spare before the fiscal calendar flips to a new year.
Alas, this is a budget where key priorities are out of whack. Its not as if the Republicans who control the House and Senate are blind to the importance of education spending, to take the starkest example of an area where in the end theyve gotten it wrong. Its that they cannot bring themselves to raise enough revenue to give education the support it merits, as the true cornerstone of North Carolinas future prosperity and the one reliable gateway to better lives for its people.
It falls to Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue to decide whether this budget should become law with her endorsement or whether she should send a message: We can do better. A budget veto, such as the one she issued last year, might well be futile, given the GOPs capacity to muster an override.
But Perdue, midway through the last year of the term she has decided will be her only one and dealing with a budget for the final time, has no particular reason to sign off on a budget that ignores her sensible approach to sparing education from hurtful cuts.
Republican leaders boast that they actually would increase spending for public school education. (They have less to say about university funding, which has absorbed one body blow after during the recession and recovery.)
They can indeed point to raises provided for teachers along with other state employees only 1.2 percent, but the first raises in four years and $27 million that would finance a new literacy program for the early grades and teacher performance bonuses. School districts that have been forced to swallow large discretionary cuts, meaning that they could decide where to stick the knife, will be able to keep $143 million they thought they would lose.
But the bottom line looks to be a big disappointment. Bill Harrison, chairman of the State Board of Education, had this to say:
... Leaders of the General Assembly who praise this budget for helping K-12 public schools should consider this equation: Schools had to return $429 million last year to meet the discretionary reduction. This year, theyll have to return $360 million and compensate for the loss of $259 million in (federal) funding. When all is said and done, they will have $190 million less than they had last year to hire school personnel.
School systems could try to economize in other areas, but with personnel being their major expense, further cutbacks in the teaching ranks seem inevitable. That means larger classes and more strain on a system that betrays every student who is shortchanged in the classroom because teachers are overloaded.
Perdues solution, endorsed by many other top Democrats, was to raise the sales tax by three-quarters of a cent while also keeping a tight rein on spending. But Republican budget writers stuck to their extreme script: The budget would have to be balanced with spending cuts, not by raising any tax rates.
Low taxes are popular with everybody, especially when the economy is lagging, but this is where priorities are put to the test.
Sparing education from further serious cuts would have kept faith with families who count on the schools to get their kids moving steadily toward good careers. But this legislature chose not only to reject Perdues call for a modest sales tax increase, but also to extend $336 million in tax breaks supposedly for small businesses, which could use some relief, but also granting the favor to high-income law firm partners, for example.
As the governor ponders whether to bring down her veto stamp, heres another relevant point: The U.S. Census Bureau, using 2010 figures, pegs North Carolina as 45th in the nation in per-student public school spending.
Those who say that money isnt everything in the quest to give all children a good education of course are correct. But theres no grounds for confidence that young North Carolinians can succeed in a competitive economy when our school spending lags near the bottom. The leaders who make our budget choices must choose more wisely.