It's Who Benefits, Not Who Pays
Defending their $20.1 billion state budget plan, state Senate leaders have hit on a consistent refrain: State government and state budgets don’t exist to make up for the loss of federal dollars.
Their constituents probably see the world a little differently.
They come to rely on government expenditures — whether for a teacher in a public school classroom or a stretch of blacktop running from their home to their workplace — regardless of whether the revenue source is the federal, state or local government.
Not many people drill down into the minutiae of government to find out which levels of government pay for which roads or what share of a teacher’s salary comes from federal, state or local coffers.
This refrain in defense of the Senate’s proposed budget has to do with the fact that there is no provision to make up for a loss $259 million in federal stimulus dollars going to the public schools. That federal funding stream will fully expire this year.
The state House, on the other hand, approved a budget plan that calls for the loss of the federal money to be made up. (House and Senate budget negotiators will now work out their differences.)
Sen. Jerry Tillman, a Republican from Randolph County, said the state never should have relied on the one-time money for ongoing needs.
“What’s going to happen next year? Well, that next year came,” Tillman said during debate of the Senate plan.
Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican lawyer from Rockingham County, said those who want to see the money continue should be lobbying Congress, not the state legislature.
Berger’s comments ignore that the federal stimulus dollars that went to state governments were always meant as a stopgap until state tax collections recovered from the recession and financial collapse of 2008. The idea was to use the federal government’s borrowing power — something that states, with their balance-budget mandates, don’t enjoy — to allow state governments to avoid layoffs and the damage to the economy that would accompany them.
Obviously, the economy hasn’t recovered to the degree envisioned. Neither have state tax collections.
So, with state finances still being squeezed, House and Senate budget writers are fussing over whether to backfill the loss of the federal dollars.
But it is a pointless exercise to argue about who should be paying for what. People in the real world don’t care. Berger correctly notes that the current-year budget didn’t result in schools shutting their doors or children being left in classrooms without teachers. There was no hue and cry last fall from a public outraged about schools that had become more crowded or less responsive or less effective.
Perhaps another quarter-billion-dollar hit to the public school’s bottom line means that tipping point will be reached. Perhaps it doesn’t mean that at all.
It is that tipping point — and not whether the state or the feds pay — which ought to worry political leaders.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at email@example.com.
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