Dread-soaked optimism: That's the pervasive feeling from state Democrats and left-leaning advocacy groups this week after Republicans in the N.C. House unveiled a $20.57 billion budget late Sunday night.
In dollars, the House spending plan hews closely to the $20.58 billion proposed by the Senate. However, the plan tempers unpopular Senate provisions in numerous ways, most notably on state jobs, education and compensation for victims of the state's eugenics program.
"The House budget is generally much better than the Senate budget," says Rep. Verla Insko, a nine-term Democrat from Orange County. "But not good enough that we should be getting excited about it."
House Republicans plan to eliminate 738 state jobs, half of the number the Senate wants to axe. (See chart this page.)
In education, the House package allocates $7.9 billion for public schools, slightly more than the $7.84 billion proposed in the Senate plan, but House lawmakers offered less for state universities, which will require tuition hikes for out-of-state students.
However, the House budget still falls far short—about $79 million in 2013–2014 alone —of the amount necessary to maintain current service levels in the state's public schools.
Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat and college instructor, pointed out teachers would not be receiving a pay raise under the House budget.
Luebke also criticized a House proposal to set aside $50 million over two years for thousands of scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools, a component shredded by critics who say Republicans are boosting private schools at the expense of public schools. "The voucher bill for private and religious schools is just wrong," Luebke said.
Alexandra Sirota, budget and tax director for the N.C. Justice Center, a nonprofit advocate for the poor, blasted House and Senate leaders' priorities for cutting education funding but setting aside millions to pay for broad tax cuts.
"These dollars, through that tax plan, will largely benefit high-wealth taxpayers and reduce our ability to make the kinds of investments in our schools and communities that we need," she said.
Education advocates can count at least one victory in the House proposal. The Senate budget proposal would defund Wright School, a longtime facility in Durham for North Carolina children with severe emotional and behavioral disorders. However, the House plan reinstates the funding.
Another key component of the House budget is a $10 million appropriation to compensate victims of the state's eugenics program, which—between 1929 and 1974—sterilized an estimated 7,600 North Carolinians deemed too poor, mentally ill or sick for breeding. Fewer than 3,000 of those victims are believed to be living today.
Gov. Pat McCrory, as well as House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, have been adamant in calling for eugenics compensation, but Senate leaders did not provide any funding in the budget they approved in late May.
Rep. Valerie Foushee, a freshman Democrat from Orange County and member of the House appropriations committee, says the funding is "the least that we can do" for the state's eugenics victims.
"It's another blot on our history," Foushee says. "It certainly is not going to compensate for what those victims went through, but it is an acknowledgment."
As expected, House leaders also proposed retaining funding for the nonprofit N.C. Rural Economic Development Center. Senate lawmakers proposed defunding the center, prompting criticism that they were shortchanging rural areas.
In a statement released Monday afternoon, the Republican House Caucus labeled their budget a "responsible" plan that focuses on core services and job creation.
"Two years ago, we crafted a budget that addressed a multibillion-dollar deficit, reduced state spending and cut taxes by more than a billion dollars," said Tillis. "Because of those sound decisions, our financial footing is more stable, and we have been able to craft a fiscally responsible and economically sustainable budget for North Carolina."
Wake County Republican Nelson Dollar, senior chairman of the House appropriations committee, called the plan "realistic, reasonable and responsible."
"Our plan is a common-sense approach to providing the services our citizens need in the areas of education, health care, public safety and job development," Dollar said.
However, labor advocates with the State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC) panned the deep job cuts, as well as budget proposals that extend five vacation days to workers but reject pay raises or retiree cost-of-living adjustments.
"While we appreciate the vacation days, they do nothing to help put food on the table," SEANC Executive Director Dana Cope said Monday.
Cope also criticized GOP lawmakers for moving to close a handful of correctional facilities in counties such as Robeson, Wayne and Duplin. But Foushee noted the House proposal excludes a Senate plan to shutter a correctional facility in Orange County.
Foushee says the facility brings vital revenues to the town of Hillsborough and lowers offender recidivism rates. "That's one thing I can say with a little bit of confidence that we'll keep open," she says.
Insko says her chief concern is how House and Senate lawmakers opt to fund health and human services, noting that leaders, for now, have retained the $20 million cut budgeted last year for mental health services in the state.
"I think our health care system is really fragile right now," she said. "With so many unknowns about the Affordable Care Act coming down, I think we need to stabilize. I think that's the smartest thing to do."
Lawmakers are expected to resolve the differences between their budget plans in a conference committee in the coming weeks. A final spending plan must be approved by both chambers and the governor by the end of the month.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The lesser of two evils."