Budgets aren’t really about money. They are about priorities. And the $21.2 billion budget proposed by Republicans who lead the state Senate shows what they value most.
Their first priority, as is to be expected of a plan drawn by politicians, is to get re-elected. That’s why the budget’s highlight is a substantial raise for teachers. The state’s 95,000 teachers make up a group too large to ignore.
But after that unavoidable necessity is addressed, albeit with the needle that teachers must give up tenure and longevity pay to get the raise, the Senate’s spending plan reverts to the Republican senators’ true priorities. Among the highest is comforting the comfortable by preserving last year’s tax cuts that benefited mostly high earners and corporations while putting the budget in the red.
If there is to be no more new revenue, the teachers’ pay hike of nearly $470 million will be paid for by cutting or freezing spending in other areas of government, areas that have already endured years of cuts and freezes during the Great Recession and its aftermath.
One of those is education, the very area the GOP senators claim they’ll improve through teacher raises. The budget would cut $233 million in funding for teacher assistants, eliminating the equivalent of 7,400 jobs. It adds nothing to textbook funding even as schools lack books. It reduces funding for local school district central offices and shrinks money for school transportation by $28.6 million. The Department of Public Instruction would be cut by 30 percent.
Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, a veteran legislator who has never seen anything quite like the current group running the Senate, observed dryly that the budget proposes “to burn the schoolhouse down to give the teachers the insurance check.”
A budget reveals what is a priority and also shows what isn’t. Here there is no surprise. For Senate Republicans, the poor, the frail and the aged are not a priority. Indeed, they are a burden to be reduced. Last year, Republicans in the General Assembly ignored the needs of hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians who would have benefited from the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Now Senate Republicans propose kicking thousands of people off of Medicaid, the state and federal health insurance program that covers low-income children and their parents, and the aged, blind and disabled.
The Senate’s budget document says nearly 12,000 people would be dropped. Sen. Ralph Hise, a Spruce Pine Republican who steers health budget writing, says that number is too high. Echoing the callousness of the budget over all, he says the cut will jettison only about 5,000 people who need care. That’s comforting.
Meanwhile, the budget proposes moving the state Medicaid office out of the Department of Heath and Human Services. It would be placed in a new agency that could focus more directly on squeezing the state’s Medicaid program down to only basic, federally mandated services.
This change is necessary, the Republican senators think, because DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos – whose main qualification for the appointment was her fundraising for Republicans – has made a mess of the agency and its oversight of Medicaid. Thus the Senate proposes fixing a bad appointment by Gov. Pat McCrory by creating a new agency, the Department of Not Aldona Wos. How about simply pressuring the governor to remove her and then having DHHS attend to the people the state is legally and morally obligated to serve?
The best thing about the Senate budget is that it’s a proposed budget. Sanity and compassion may yet intervene to produce a spending plan more in keeping with the priorities and the values of North Carolinians. On that thin hope, the direction of the state now depends.