Editorial: The birth of a budget

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The emergence of the new state budget might be likened to the birth of a baby elephant ó a long wait, a lot of noisy labor, a desperate final push and, finally, a clumsy, wrinkled progeny that only a mother could hold dear.
We’d note one major difference, however. Baby elephants carry the same heft from generation to generation. The state budget tends to get more bloated with each successive edition. (Special interests and entrenched political power have that effect.)
This year, legislators and the governor vowed that wouldn’t be the case ó couldn’t be the case, given the economic environment ó and we’ve been subjected to months of warnings and pre-emptory laments about how painful the upcoming cuts to important programs would be.
Make no mistake, agencies across the board are feeling the pain accompanying this budget. Local school districts here and across the state will have to figure out how to implement a $225 million cut in funding for grades 4-12. Another $48 million will be carved out by delaying some textbook purchases. Yet another $38 million comes through eliminating funding earmarked to help boost the test scores of poorly performing students. That means officials in the Rowan-Salisbury system will face more hard decisions in the coming weeks.
Rowan-Cabarrus and other community colleges face $14 million in cuts.
Local mental health, substance abuse and physical disability service providers will have $40 million less. In addition, 350 positions will be eliminated within related health and human services divisions.
The Clean Water Management Trust Fund will see a $50 million cut in each of the next two years.
Those are sizable cuts, with significant impact that will be felt across communities like ours. … And yet, for all the posturing and posing, for all the handwringing, the notion that this is a severely spartan budget just isn’t so, as will no doubt come to light in the following days and weeks as more details emerge. The budget also includes almost a $1 billion tax increase that will come through a 1-cent sales tax hike, surcharges on corporate and some individual incomes and higher levies on booze and cigarettes. Although it’s officially billed as a $19 billion budget, that depends on what you’re counting. If you kick in North Carolina’s $1.4 billion in federal stimulus money, which is being used to fund many programs previously fed by the general fund, the total outlay comes to something like $20.4 billion ó compared to total spending of $20.3 billion in the budget that expired June 30.
Legislators may have cobbled together a reasonable balance between making cuts and raising revenue, and they’ve spread the pain widely on both counts. But this is still a sprawling pachyderm of a spending bill, and nobody’s idea of a pretty baby.