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A most shameful budget

Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon

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Sunday, May 28, 2017

The most shameful thing about the disastrous budget passed by the N.C. Senate two weeks ago is not the vindictive 3 a.m. budget cuts to education programs in Democrats’ districts.

It’s not the paltry raise given to state workers after years of neglect or the cruel refusal to give state retirees any cost of living increase at all.

It’s not the dozens of controversial policy provisions snuck into the 362-page budget bill with no debate or discussion that cuts food benefits to 133,000 people, bans new wind farms, ends the certificate of need process for health care facilities, creates education savings accounts, and more.

It’s not even the latest installment of the Senate’s Robin Hood in reverse tax scheme that cuts taxes again on the wealthy and corporations, costing the state more than $850 million that the General Assembly’s own staff says will lead to a significant budget shortfall in a few years.

It is the decision in a year of a large budget surplus to make it more likely that thousands of at-risk children in North Carolina will struggle in their lifetimes.

Senate leaders chose to increase the number of slots in NC Pre-K by 2,350, which most media accounts will tell you is roughly half of the waiting list.

That means that almost 3,000 at-risk four-year-olds whose parents signed them up for the program will be unable to enroll.

But there really is no waiting list. It’s a figure of speech.

When a four-year-old from a low-income family is not allowed to enroll, they don’t get another chance next year. It’s too late. They are already in school without the additional skills and head start that the program provides.

And the mythological waiting list is not even the whole story. There are roughly 67,000 at-risk children eligible for NC Pre-K and less than half are served every year.

There is no debate any longer that the program makes it far more likely that the children will succeed in school. There is a study every year that confirms it.

Even conservative legislators are part of that consensus. We know for a fact that giving at-risk kids extra preparation before they start school vastly increases the odds that they will overcome the hurdles they face and do well.

Studies also show that NC Pre-K saves the state money in the long run, but it would be the right thing to do even it didn’t.

And yet the Senate budget only finds the money to pay for half of four-year-olds on the so-called waiting list this year. That cost $18 million.

For an investment of twice that then, Senate leaders could have made sure that at least every child who signed up for the program had the chance to benefit from it and not start school behind.

That wouldn’t be enough but it would be a start. Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget calls for eliminating the waiting list but the Senate had other priorities.

The tax cuts that flows primarily to corporations and the wealthiest 20 percent of the people costs $325 million next year and more than $800 million when fully in place.

Even a slight reduction in the unwise tax break would make sure that several thousand children have a brighter future.

Senate leaders keep boasting about their decision to put another $363 million in the state’s savings account, bringing the total in savings to more than $1.5 billion.

They could have decided to put $345 million in savings instead and used $18 million to make sure 3,000 children started school with a far better chance to succeed.

But saving $363 million was more important than saving the future of thousands of kids.

A state budget is at its core simply a list of priorities. Senate leaders, to their great shame, made it clear again this year that children in North Carolina are not at the top of their list—not even close.

 Chris Fitzsimon, founder and executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.

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