N.C. Senate budget more than numbers

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 26, 2011

Legislative budgets are about more than spending and revenue.                                         
They’re about competing visions for the future — and clashing judgments on the  past.
Nowhere is that more obvious than in the N.C. Senate’s proposals for cutting school funding and reshaping the education landscape. Republican leaders don’t simply see this as a struggle to balance the budget. It’s a mission to reform a “broken educational system,” to quote Sen. Andrew Brock, and make other structural changes.
 The Senate proposals would virtually abolish city school systems and force consolidation by cutting off state funding for Kannapolis, Mooresville and similar systems around the state. This may save money, but how does it gibe with the conservative mantra of downsizing bureacracy, with more local control?
Republicans would hire new teachers in the early grades to slightly decrease class sizes — a commendable idea, on its own — but do so at the loss of funding teacher assistants. They would dissolve the N.C. Partnership for Children, which administers the state’s Smart Start early childhood initiative, and reduce program funding by 20 percent. (An article elsewhere on this page discusses the potential implications for Rowan County.)
Performance-based pay for teachers and more charter schools are also part of the reform blueprint.
Meanwhile, on the revenue side, House and Senate leaders are adamant there’ll be no extension of a penny sales tax set to expire next month, keeping a campaign vow they made to voters. The lower-taxation vision also includes tax reductions for individuals and many small businesses. Supply-siders believe it will help spur spending, which ultimately means more government revenue. But that may be a big gamble in  an economy where the jobless rate remains high and both individuals and businesses remain reluctant to spend. If revenues don’t rise, do you cut taxes yet more?
 Elections have consequences, and the consequences of November are about to fully play out in the General Assembly. Inevitably, part of the budgeting process will involve compromises as Republicans seek to gain more Democratic support as well as devise a final plan that can avoid the governor’s veto — a decision, Gov. Beverly Perdue has said, that will rest heavily on how well the budge “protects our schools, community colleges and universities.”
Protecting such institutions shouldn’t mean protecting the status quo, obviously. It’s a given these budget cuts will be painful, and no one should expect otherwise. But as legislative GOP leaders move forward with the vision of a “right-sized” government, they need to make certain their remedies are truly crafted to reform supposedly broken systems, not crush them underfoot.