Legislature Must Count on Short Budget Memories
It's no secret that the defining debate of the General Assembly session that begins next Wednesday will be how to address the state's $3.7 billion budget shortfall.
The leaders of the new Republican majorities continue to insist that they can balance the budget with cuts alone without doing serious harm to education, human services and other essential functions of state government.
Most Democrats disagree and point to reductions under consideration by Gov. Beverly Perdue that will slash 10 percent from education and 15 percent from the rest of state government and still fall a billion dollars short of making up the shortfall.
The 10 percent cut in education would mean the loss of 6,000 teacher jobs and 13,000 teacher assistant positions. The 15 percent cuts to the rest of state government would mean ending vital services to seniors and people with disabilities and cripple the state's judicial system, which is already significantly underfunded.
Progressive advocates want lawmakers to raise new revenue to prevent the worst cuts, and many have suggested not raising taxes but merely continuing the 2009 tax increases that are set to expire on June 30. The new Republican leaders have vowed to let the temporary taxes expire.
Those are the two competing philosophies as the legislative budget debate begins in earnest next week: address the shortfall with budget cuts alone or use a balanced approach of painful cuts and new revenue.
But lost in the back-and-forth is how state lawmakers balanced the budget in the past two years. Yes, they used federal stimulus money and revenue from the 2009 tax increases, but they made budget cuts in the past two years too, many of them too deep and ill-advised.
Lawmakers cut $2.7 billion from the continuation budget in 2009 and another $850 million in 2010. After-school programs for at-risk kids were abolished despite evidence that they were helping keep troubled kids enrolled in school and off the streets.
The innovative mentoring program for teachers was eliminated despite consensus that new teachers need more support and training to be effective.
Deep cuts were made in Smart Start and child care subsidies, adding thousands of kids to the waiting list whose parents who need help with child care so they can look for work or go back to school. More at Four, the state's award winning program for preschoolers, was slashed, and funding for literacy coaches was ended. Funding for programs at community colleges that teach life skills to disabled adults was abolished.
There were big reductions to group homes, and disabled adults were denied basic services and put on a waiting list instead. The new purchase of school buses was delayed. How long will that be safe? Money for instructional supplies to classrooms was reduced, even though teachers are already paying for materials out of their own pockets.
That's nowhere near a complete list of the cuts that were made in the past two years that in all totaled $3.55 billion. And now the legislative leaders are telling us they can cut that much again without causing irreparable harm to schools and the most vulnerable people in the state.
That doesn't make sense. They must be hoping that we have short memories. But people in the state remember the cuts all too well. They are experiencing their effects every day.
And many of them simply cannot survive another round.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch. Contact him at email@example.com.
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