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Scott Mooneyham: Drawing blanks on the budget

RALEIGH ó Every year, North Carolina legislators file at least a few dozen blank bills.
The bills are placeholders, with a title and little else. They allow a legislator to insert some proposed policy change at a later date. Often, legislators use the bills to anticipate a local law wanted by a town council or county commissioners back in the home district.
Usually, the title reads something like, “An Act to Amend the Laws Affecting House District 1.” None of these bills, of course, is ever acted on without some actual substance being plopped into the bill. Looking at the state Senate’s proposed $20 billion state budget plan, that’s too bad. The Senate might have done better by just going ahead and passing a blank bill to send on to the House.
That’s essentially what the chamber did by passing a budget plan before final April tax collection figures are known and by passing a plan that relies on $500 million in unspecified tax hikes.
That’s right. The Senate’s budget is essentially unbalanced. It spends $500 million whose source has yet to be determined.
Senate leaders say no worry. They’ll figure it out later. Sen. Dan Clodfelter, a Charlotte Democrat and co-chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, pointed out that the bill can’t become law until the source of the money is determined. And he told fellow senators that coming up with a tax package now, before April revenue figures are available, would be rash.
So, spending money before those all important tax collection numbers are known isn’t rash?
Senators voting for the plan (mostly Democrats, only three Republicans voted for it) also sent some troubling signals about the importance that they place on public schools in North Carolina.
They would raise class size by two students. They would suspend teacher bonuses. They would drop the state’s testing program in favor of federally-mandated tests. They would cut in half on-the-job teacher training. They would eliminate a $60 million pot of school construction money. They would cut and completely change the parameters of a pre-school program for 4-year-olds. They would eliminate a $38 million program to help academically struggling, at-risk kids.
Individually, some of the proposals deserve consideration. Collectively, they amount to one chamber of the legislature turning its back on the policy emphasis put on public school improvement in North Carolina beginning in the 1980s.
Obviously, Senate budget writers faced tough choices in a tough financial climate. But the plan represents a real cut to public schools of $170 million. It’s the symbolism underlying these proposed cuts that probably matters most.
April tax collection numbers will likely blow up this budget plan. House budget writers will be left to clean up the mess, figuring out even bigger tax questions and how to better balance education cuts. And so, a blank bill from the Senate would have done just fine.
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Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association.

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