Public School Budget Shorted By Medicaid
Over the course of the remainder of this election year, Republican state legislators will stick to their narrative, Democratic legislators to theirs.
The Republican narrative: We did better by the public schools this year than last; no school doors closed last year, and they won't close this year; we inherited a tough financial situation from our Democratic predecessors, and our public school budget is no worse than those which they put together in 2009 and 2010.
The Democratic narrative: The Republican majority at the legislature wants to starve the public schools; four straight years of budget cuts will cripple schools, especially as federal stimulus dollars expire; the latest cuts are unnecessary in light of a $300 million tax cut last year.
The reality, not surprisingly, is a bit different than the two conflicting narratives.
The public schools will, in fact, see $190 million less in the coming fiscal year than in the current fiscal year, even with a slight bump in state dollars. That's because the last installment of federal stimulus money is about to go away.
The result will be more strain on the public schools, and probably more teaching positions eliminated.
But there is more to the story.
Most Republican legislators wanted to do more for public education.
The reason that they didn't has nothing to do with schools and everything to do with Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor.
In the current fiscal year, state legislators have been forced to address two separate shortfalls in the Medicaid program, totaling more than $250 million. They bear some responsibility for those shortfalls, expecting savings that never materialized, but rising enrollment - something of which they have no control - also played a role.
Addressing the current shortfall wasn't so difficult. Legislators, working with Gov. Beverly Perdue's administration, grabbed from several pots of unspent state money to fill the gap.
The rising costs, though, also had to be accounted for going forward. The result was that, in the upcoming fiscal year, Medicaid will cost the taxpayers of North Carolina an additional $212 million.
In the final few days of budget negotiations, that "rebase" figure went up $44 million because of the second part of the program shortfall.
To put that $44 million in perspective, the figure is enough to pay the salary and benefits of another 600 teachers.
The trend of rising Medicaid costs, related to escalating health care costs that have been growing at three times higher than the rate of inflation, is nothing new.
If you look at the state's general operating budget as a pie, the state's public schools receive the same share of that pie today - 38 percent - as they did in 2000. The Medicaid budget today represents 15 percent of the pie, compared with 10 percent in 2000.
Politicians may disagree about what to do about that trend.
The thoughtful ones, of both political persuasions, understand that it is unsustainable.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at email@example.com.
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