Republican politicians who control the General Assembly were apparently operating under one or more of the following assumptions during their still-unfinished "short" legislative session:
• Most voters, in order to maintain their sanity, pay little attention to what happens in the General Assembly.
• Even if voters do pay attention, state budgets are obtuse and confusing—hell, most legislators have no idea what's in there either.
• To voters who pay close attention, screw 'em, because gerrymandered districts virtually guarantee that Republicans will continue to dominate after the 2014 elections whatever they do.
• Coal-ash pits? In Duke Energy, we trust—especially for campaign contributions.
I say all this because the to-do list for the Republicans could not have been simpler when they came to Raleigh in May. It was: 1) add a pay raise for teachers to the 2014–15 budget; 2) pass a bill requiring Duke Energy to clean up its coal-ash mess; 3) adjourn.
Instead, however, they've spent three chaotic months trading insults—if nothing else, this session proved that the rumored animosity was true between House Speaker Tom Tillis and his crew on the one side and Senate President Phil Berger's bunch on the other.
Seeing them go at it is like watching the fake Sumo wrestlers who battle between innings at a Durham Bulls game, trying to bump each other to the ground with their inflated stomachs.
Finally last week the two houses agreed on a budget, albeit one so financially shaky that the Republicans may have to revisit it in November—after the elections. For that reason and because they have thus far failed to pass any sort of coal-ash cleanup bill, the combatants didn't adjourn.
Because you prize your sanity and may not know what to make of the Republicans' budget, I offer the following:
The Incredible Shrinking Budget. The budget bill is a morass of numbers, but one stands out. Total spending from state revenues is projected to be $21.1 billion. It was $20.7 billion seven years ago, before the Great Recession. Since then, inflation has totaled 13 percent and the state's population has grown 7 percent—meaning a comparable, inflation-adjusted budget now would be $25 billion. Obviously, this Republican budget is far less—with education, which accounts for more than half of state spending, taking the biggest cuts.
Lipstick on a Pig. With much fanfare, Republicans announced a 7 percent pay raise for K-12 public school teachers. Great, right? But many teachers were already due (overdue) for longevity pay hikes, which legislators eliminated. Thus, net raises average 5.5 percent, and they are heavily weighted toward beginning teachers; veteran teachers receive far less. Worse, teacher pay is up after six years of a virtual freeze, but other school funding was cut—meaning North Carolina will continue to be in the bottom five states in terms of per-student financial support. And even with the pay hikes, our teachers will remain among the worst-paid.
UNC Hit Again. State funding for the university system was $2.6 billion seven years ago. It's still $2.6 billion. Again, adjust for inflation and population and that's a $500 million-a-year cut—to which the Republicans this year added another $76 million cut.
Yes to Vouchers. This month, the state issued will issue vouchers of up to $4,200 —a total of $10 million a year—for students from low- and middle-income families to attend private and religious schools. This is called education on the cheap. A Superior Court judge is considering whether the vouchers violate the state constitution, which would seem to allow the General Assembly to fund only public schools. As N.C. Policy Watch reported, Republicans like Rep. Paul Stam of Wake County pushed hard for the vouchers to be issued before the judge decides.
And Yes to Charters. The Republican budget demands that the State Board of Education license two "virtual" charter schools for 2015–16. They'd be a first. The Republicans previously allowed an unlimited number of charters, but so far, the SBOE has required charters to have a building—no online-only operations. For-profit charter management companies are thriving in North Carolina, with big profits in the offing if they run virtual schools too. Senate Bill 793, passed by the Republicans and awaiting Gov. Pat McCrory's signature, would let these companies keep profits secret as well as how much they pay their teachers and administrators.
No Aid to Medicaid. After education, Medicaid is the biggest budget item. It provides health care to 1.6 million low-income North Carolinians including children, seniors and persons with disabilities. The federal government pays a two-thirds share. Still, state costs are almost $4 billion a year. Last year, Republicans cut $100 million from state spending by a 3 percent cut in payments to doctors and hospitals; this year, they cut another 1 percent. Meanwhile, the state continues to reject Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, turning down $3 billion more in federal aid for which little or no state match would be required. An estimated additional 300,000 North Carolinians would qualify.
Those Shaky Revenues. Don't forget, Republicans cut taxes last year, mainly for corporations and upper-income individuals. They estimated the loss to state revenues at less than $500 million a year (after adding in tax hikes on our movie tickets, utility bills and such). But recent analysis by the General Assembly's fiscal experts put the tab at close to $700 million—with another $300 million a year in corporate tax cuts slated for Jan. 1. Did the Republicans revise their budget to reflect the lower revenue estimate? They did not. But they did jack up anticipated lottery revenues by $100 million a year. Helps pay the teachers, losers.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Wasted Summer."