Governor Pat McCrory is garnering praise these days for the recommendations to improve mental health services being considered by a task force he created—and he deserves it. McCrory has spoken out passionately about the need for better support and treatment for people with a mental illness or addiction since he became governor in 2013.
But there’s an undercurrent to the work of the task force that McCrory appointed that is sadly familiar and threatens to undercut the progress on mental health that McCrory says publicly that North Carolina needs to make.
The recommendations on the table for the panel include everything from more affordable housing for people with mental illness, more specialists in schools, substance abuse for mentally ill people in jail, and an end to the state’s practice of trying 16 and 17-year olds who commit crimes in the adult prison.
All good ideas as are most of the proposals before the group that will come up with a final list of recommendations for the General Assembly session that begins in April.
But it turns out there are already limits on what the task force can recommend and who will work to see the proposals pass the House and Senate.
Jack Register, the head of the advocacy group NAMI NC and a task force member, told the News & Observer that the panel was told that any final recommendations had to be revenue neutral—that is they couldn’t require additional investments from the state.
But increasing the supply of affordable housing will take more state support. So will any meaningful expansion of substance abuse treatment services to offenders in local jails or adding behavioral specialists to schools.
Those are vital investments but it seems the panel can’t recommend them unless they don’t cost anything or they propose cuts in other areas to pay for them.
It is not a new refrain. The folks currently in charge in Raleigh often say they wish they could do more for public schools or state employee salaries or early childhood programs but the “money just isn’t there.”
The money is there of course, but McCrory and state lawmakers keep spending it on something else, most often tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.
The tax breaks adopted in the 2015 budget will cost more than $600 million next year and more than a billion dollars by 2020. That’s on top of the even larger tax cuts passed in 2013. That’s a lot of funding for public schools, state employees, and mental health services.
But that would mean those services have to be a priority, not treated as an afterthought and funded with whatever is left over after taxes are cut again.
Register also says that advocates on the task force were expected to work hard to make sure the recommendations were adopted by the General Assembly, which came as a surprise since he and other advocates on the commission understandably assumed that the legislators who were members of the task force would take the lead in convincing their colleagues to adopt them.
Then there is McCrory himself, who will a put a budget together for lawmakers to consider when they return to Raleigh.
He needs to back up his strong words in support of better mental health services with funding in his budget to pay for them. The key is not revenue neutrality. The point is to help people suffering with a mental illness or addiction.
But even putting it his budget is not enough.
The first budget he presented to the General Assembly in 2013 called on lawmakers to restore funding for the state’s highly successful drug treatment courts. Legislative leaders ignored his request and McCrory never brought it up again.
That can’t happen this time.
McCrory will get a lot more praise in headlines if follows up the creation of his mental health task force by using the power of his office to make sure that lawmakers adopt the recommendations, revenue neutral or not.
And more importantly, thousands of people’s lives will be improved. It’s all up to the governor. Let’s hope he’s up to it.
Chris Fitzsimon is the Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch.