Legislators Facing a Thankless Task
North Carolina Democrats who lost legislative seats in November should be licking their chops rather than licking their wounds.
With a $3.7 billion budget deficit looming, this is a convenient time to retire or at least take a vacation from the vicissitudes of the governing majority. Republican leaders have long decried what they call state government’s reckless spending habits. Now it’s their responsibility to put a stop to it.
The problem is overwhelming, because $3.7 billion represents about one-fifth of this year’s state budget. It’s likely that the simple process of reducing budgets, department by department, by 10 to 15 percent won’t do the job. Apparently cutting out the oft-maligned “waste and fraud” won’t do it either. And don’t look for the return of any federal stimulus money.
Drastic Steps Ahead?
N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper has announced the recovery of $53 million from Medicaid fraud, most of which represents the state’s share of a settlement with a major pharmaceutical company accused of taking illegal kickbacks. That’s good news, but the total is far less than 1 billion.
North Carolina law mandates a balanced budget. Unlike the federal government, the state cannot endlessly borrow money. The state doesn’t print money either.
The trick to reducing the budget by $3.7 billion is to balance the budget without crippling state government and the public schools.
The new GOP leaders of the House and Senate have already declared their intention to cut their own operational budgets. Although commendable, that won’t go far toward a workable balancing act.
Just to give an idea of the magnitude of the problem: N.C. Policy Watch, a liberal research think tank, reports that the state could abolish several key departments, including Justice and Corrections, and dispense with the entire judicial branch (is that constitutional?) and still not come close to $3.7 billion.
The Policy Watch folks then throw in the community college system for extra measure and note that the total would still be short almost $700 million. We trust that they speak tongue-in-cheek.
Massive Layoffs Likely
In all seriousness, the deficit may well mean massive layoffs, the most obvious of which would be 6,000 public school teaching positions and 13,000 teacher assistants. Add that to thousands of state jobs lost in this budget-slashing season, and you have another major blow to a teetering economy.
In Pinehurst late last year, Gov. Beverly Perdue announced plans to reorganize and streamline state government. Her plan, if implemented, will undoubtedly save money and is desperately needed. But it will not total any $3.7 billion. When asked the extent of the envisioned savings, the governor cleverly stalled by advising that the figures would be in her new budget.
North Carolina has been through rough times before and has avoided anything as drastic as any of the above. Economic recovery may be slow getting here, but it will come.
Meanwhile, legislators will need good luck and gumption if they hope to close that gaping budget hole. We wish them well and simply ask that they apply a generous portion of wisdom in making essential cuts and, if necessary, restoring taxes.
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