It’s not hard to tell it is an election year for the General Assembly. Senate leaders, who for years have demonized public school teachers and openly challenged assertions that they are underpaid, are now proposing a significant salary increase that they claim will raise the state’s ranking in teacher pay to 24th in the nation.
That’s the budget headline they are hoping everyone remembers. They’d rather not talk about their plan that gives only some state employees a small pay hike while ignoring state retirees altogether.
Senate Budget Chair Harry Brown said giving retirees a long overdue cost of living increase as the House proposed would not be “good budgeting.” People who spent much of their lives serving the public by working in state government and who are now having trouble making ends meet would no doubt disagree.
And Senate leaders definitely hope people don’t point out the latest round of cuts to public education, slashing funding for school connectivity, cutting off money for a program to develop principals, and making further cuts to support staff at the state and local level. It’s another round of decisions that will keep per pupil spending far below pre-recession levels.
The Senate budget also does not fund a couple of noteworthy education ideas in the House plan, a new teacher scholarship program and a career ladder for teachers.
Senate leaders did manage to find $10 million for the sketchy school voucher scheme that diverts taxpayer dollars to completely unaccountable private and religious schools, many of which openly discriminate against LGBT students and use a bizarre curriculum that teaches students that humans and dinosaurs co-existed and that slaves were treated well.
The budget calls for an additional $10 million a year for vouchers for the next ten years until the state is spending $135 million on a program with no idea on how it is working or what students are actually learning. Not much good budgeting there.
The Senate budget also cuts taxes again by raising the standard deduction but raises them too by expanding the sales tax base to force people to pay more for gutter cleaning, window washing, pest control and a host of other common services.
The budget also includes a proposal to slash tuition at five campuses of the UNC system, three of them historically black institutions whose supporters understandably see the plan as a threat to the survival of the HBCUs.
At the very least the controversial proposal should not have been stuffed into the budget. It deserves a thorough public debate on its own.
And it’s not the only major policy snuck into the budget document. The spending plan also includes a series of changes to environmental laws, including a block on implementation of rules to protect Jordan Lake and Falls Lake from runoff pollution from development.
The budget includes money to study if freshwater mussels can miraculously clean up the lakes. That comes after the state wasted several million dollars on bizarre solar mixers that proved wholly ineffective. Lawmakers seem willing to try almost anything except stopping pollution from getting into the lakes in the first place.
There’s plenty more policy in the budget too and of course very few lawmakers knew any of it was coming. The budget process used in the Senate now is among the least transparent in history. The budget isn’t debated and discussed with input from lawmakers and the public.
It’s unveiled from on high, chocked full of policy decisions made in the corner rooms where the lobbyists and powerful Senators mingle.
And maybe most importantly, the Senate budget, like the House plan, falls woefully short of making the investments in education, human services, and environmental protections that the state needs after years of cuts forced first by the Great Recession and then made in service of a far-right anti-government ideology.
Now legislative leaders are obsessed with imposing artificial spending limits on themselves, cutting taxes and forcing choices like helping educators or state workers, giving teachers a raise or funding the support they need in the classroom, expanding substance abuse treatment programs or reducing the waiting list of at-risk kids for NC PreK.
The headline about this Senate budget is not that teachers may get a raise in this election year. It is that the spending plan is actually a cynical, divisive, inadequate, written in secret, regressive budget that keeps North Carolina headed in the wrong direction—again.
Chris Fitzsimon is the Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch.