Senate budget is the anti-spending plan
Saturday, June 1, 2019
A state budget is a spending plan, but the proposal the state Senate’s Republican majority presented Tuesday is better described as an anti-spending plan. It is an unalloyed version of Senate leader Phil Berger’s iron-rule of government: Cut taxes and spend the absolute minimum. If there’s any cash left over, stuff it into a reserve fund and call it prudence.
The total proposed two-year Senate budget comes in at $23.9 billion, almost comically teetering on the dreaded edge of $24 billion, a line the frugal senators could not be brought to cross. By contrast, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposed budget calls for $25.2 billion in state spending with no new taxes. The NC Budget & Tax Center estimates that if state spending was at the 45-year average level — about 6 percent of the state’s economy — the state budget would now be about $29 billion.
For Berger, those differences are simply the gap between Democrats freely spending other peoples’ money and his disciplined approach of spending the least possible in order to cut taxes. At a Tuesday news conference at the Legislative Building, Berger stood flanked by his caucus members and declared that, “This budget continues the policies that brought about our North Carolina success story.”
But the proposed budget testifies against that sweeping claim. If austerity and tax cuts are driving North Carolina’s success, why does the budget call for boosting teacher pay by 3.5 percent over two years? It’s because the reality has become undeniable — especially with an election year coming: North Carolina’s teachers have been underpaid since Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2011. (The governor’s budget calls for a pay raise of 9.1 percent over two years.)
Why do Senate Republicans now want to give teachers $300 a year for school supplies and spend another $12 million on textbooks and digital resources? It’s because teachers have been outfitting their classrooms at their own expense and schools have been lacking for textbooks and other basic resources.
Why is there a sudden boost in pay for state corrections officers? Because the state prisons have been chronically underfunded. Some have officer vacancy rates of over 20 percent and officers are required to work overtime to fill the gap.
Why does the Senate proposal ask for a 5 percent pay raise for state employees over the next two years? It’s because the legislature paid for its past tax cuts in part by allowing state pay to lose ground to inflation.
Why would the Senate budget allot $4.5 million to recruit medical doctors, dentists and nurses to rural areas and $15 million to expand broadband in rural areas? It’s because the much of rural North Carolina is not sharing in the “North Carolina success story.” The state’s urban-rural divide is growing under policies that stress tax cuts over investment in economic development.
The most significant aspect of the Senate Republicans’ budget is what it lacks: funding to expand Medicaid. Thirty-seven other states have seen the value of accepting billions of federal dollars to expand Medicaid. In North Carolina expansion could create an estimated 40,000 jobs and provide health insurance for 500,000 people.
The governor will likely veto any budget bill that lacks Medicaid expansion. Then the haggling will begin. But the Senate’s opening bid suggests North Carolina will face another year of getting less than it needs. But such a condition, by the Senate Republicans’ reckoning, is the price of success.
The News & Observer of Raleigh