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Chris Fitzsimon: The disingenuous election year budget

There are two pieces of good news about the final state budget agreement released last week. One is listed explicitly in the 260-page budget document. The other is how legislative leaders are presenting the plan.
Teachers in North Carolina are getting a raise. That is the explicit part. Despite the claims otherwise, it is not the biggest overall percentage increase in state history, though newer teachers are getting a double digit increase. Some veteran teachers are receiving less than two percent.
But many teachers will earn more money this year than they earned last year. And that’s good. Also welcome news, at least initially, is how legislative leaders are describing their budget and how the themes of the budget debate developed.
Last year funding for education at all levels was slashed and calls for teacher raises were ignored or worse — with some legislators saying teachers had nothing to complain about, they have summers off after all. There was an open hostility in the air.
Lawmakers and the conservative think tanks aligned with them also attacked the credibility of rankings that showed North Carolina 46th in the country in teacher pay.
But after a year of outrage, protests and petitions, giving teachers a raise became the No. 1 priority of House and Senate leaders this year. There is an election in November after all.
Now they are citing the same rankings they once condemned to show how much their raise will mean, to show teachers how much they appreciate them. Please.
The same is true with Medicaid. After spending the last three years trashing the program that provides health care for the most vulnerable people in the state, House leaders offered a passionate defense of the program this session when confronted with a Senate proposal to kick thousands of aged, blind and disabled people off the health care rolls.
(The Senate still wants to privatize Medicaid by turning it over to out of state for-profit companies, but lawmakers have decided to put that discussion off until the middle of November, after voters have gone to the polls.)
Judging from the new rhetoric about teachers and Medicaid, you might think something has changed, that maybe the ideologues currently running state government have come to their senses and realized that the people of North Carolina do not support their slashing funding for education, human services and other vital state programs.
Nope. The news is not that good, not even close.
A look beyond the teacher raise numbers makes that clear. (And even the teacher raise number is fuzzy because the budget ends longevity pay for veteran teachers to help pay for it)
The final budget actually makes more cuts to education to pay for the teacher raises and a $1,000 flat increase for most state employees. The university is hit the hardest, forced to absorb another $76 million “discretionary cut” on top of the deep cuts made in the last three years.
That’s especially noteworthy since one of the House budget chairs told reporters Wednesday that university funding was maintained. That’s an odd way to describe another massive cut.
The budget makes cuts in health and human services too, from Medicaid to child care subsidies to programs that help seniors who are confined at home. It includes a number of shell games, shifting lottery money to pay for teacher assistants, using federal money to fund state programs and counting on almost $400 million to be unspent during the year to balance the budget.
Most importantly, there’s the failure to account for the increased cost of last year’s tax cuts, a $200 million hole in the calendar year. That makes it likely that Gov. Pat McCrory will order more cuts at state agencies later in the year — after the election — to fill the budget hole that even some Republicans are privately predicting.
There’s plenty of ideology in the plan too, from creating sketchy virtual charter schools to expanding the private school voucher scheme to changing the way the court system handles constitutional challenges to laws the General Assembly passes. They will now be handled by a three-judge panel appointed by the Chief Justice of the N.C. Supreme Court.
This is not a budget to move North Carolina forward. Not kicking vulnerable people off of Medicaid immediately is not a cause for celebration or pats on the back.
Neither is giving teachers a one-time pay hike while making cuts to public schools and slashing the university system to pay for it instead of canceling the next round of tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy that take effect January 1.
Legislative leaders may want us to think they are kinder and gentler this year and want to make important investments in public schools and human services and other state intuitions. But the numbers in their disingenuous smoke and mirrors election year budget say otherwise.
Chris Fitzsimon is director of NC Policy Watch.

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