You know state lawmakers are serious about something when they start discussing it behind closed doors. That's what's been happening for the past two weeks at the General Assembly, where legislators are working feverishly on a state budget.
Coming up with a viable spending plan hasn't been easy. The state faces a $91 million revenue shortfall in the current year and a $450 million budget gap next year. Gov. Jim Hunt has recommended a combination of added borrowing and reduced spending to plug those holes--including less money for Medicaid, affordable housing, domestic violence prevention and food banks.
State House and Senate members have been debating their own budget proposals in open committee meetings and closed-door talks. Legislators aren't expected to make any major changes in the spending items in Hunt's plan. But lawmakers are considering other funding strategies, such as temporarily reducing contributions to the state employee pension system in order to support bigger raises for state workers.
Whatever spending plan emerges, advocates for progressive causes know it's going to be a lean year. But they haven't given up trying to gain support for bills and budget items that address such key concerns as housing, health care and the environment.
A quick survey of lobbyists for statewide education, social service and environmental groups turned up the following five good reasons to call your state senators and representatives this week:
Rx for health careAffordable health care advocates say a bill that sets new standards for reviewing cases where HMOs deny coverage to their members has a good chance of passing. House Bill 1538 would allow patients to appeal decisions by their health insurers to an independent board, rather than to doctors or other experts chosen by the insurers. "The HMOs are not completely opposed to this bill," says Adam Searing, head of the N.C. Health Care Access Coalition. "And it doesn't cost the state any extra money."
Searing's group is pushing for two other items that will cost money and are less assured of legislative approval: $1.41 million in the governor's budget to expand the state's Health Choice program for uninsured children; and House Bill 1556, which provides $28.5 million to raise the reimbursement rates for dentists who serve children on Medicaid.
Advocates for people with mental illness are lobbying for House Bill 1567, which directs insurers to provide the same level of coverage for mental illness and drug addiction as for other health conditions. They're also keeping their eye on House Bill 1519, which creates a legislative oversight committee charged with reforming the state's mental health system.
Fill in the gapsAlthough the bulk of new spending in the governor's budget goes to higher teacher pay and expansion of the Smart Start early childhood program, other education needs are left out. That's why public school advocates are backing Senate Bill 1518, which would funnel $10 million to programs for students with limited English skills. Advocates are also campaigning for House Bill 1697, which earmarks $31.3 million to help close the achievement gap between African-American students and white students in North Carolina schools, and $9.5 million for English-language programs. House Bill 1547 provides funds for a statewide pilot program to study successful strategies for helping students considered "at risk" for academic failure.
Two steps backHunt's budget provides no additional money for the state's $3 million Housing Trust Fund, which supports affordable housing initiatives for low-income citizens. Last year, the fund stood at $9 million. So the governor's plan means a $6 million drop in funds for low-income housing construction, rehabilitation and mortgage assistance programs next year. The N.C. Affordable Housing Coalition is pinning its hopes on Senate Bill 1486 and House Bill 1682, which boost the fund to $25 million--an admittedly ambitious target. "The trust fund is the only state housing appropriation in the entire budget," says Bill Rowe, the coalition's lobbyist. "And that money is also needed to leverage other funding sources" for low-income housing.
Environmental dos and don'tsEnvironmentalists are focusing their attention on bills that would expand the state's farmland preservation program (Senate Bill 1421), increase funds for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund (Senate Bill 1512), and improve air quality by beefing up car inspection and maintenance programs (Senate Bill 1337 and House Bill 1638). Although it doesn't come with any money attached, conservation groups are also celebrating the state Senate's approval last week of a bill that sets a goal of preserving 1 million acres of open space. Senate Bill 1328 passed by a vote of 47-1 and now goes to the House.
But environmentalists are sounding the alarm about a measure that would allow the state to negotiate "environmental excellence" agreements with companies for pollution-prevention programs that aren't recognized under existing laws. House Bill 1580 "would basically allow an industry to opt out of the regulatory structure for specially negotiated deals," says Molly Diggins, state director of the N.C. Sierra Club.
Damage controlAdvocates for social service groups view House Bill 1763 as one way to address needs that were omitted from the governor's budget. The "Coalition 2000" bill restores $46 million in funds cut from programs serving people with disabilities, mental illness and substance abuse since 1992. It also provides money to help community mental health programs keep pace with inflation.
Progressive lobbyists oppose the Taxpayer Protection Act, which would limit any increase in the state budget based on inflation and population changes. "It's pure gimmickry," says Dan Gerlach, head of the N.C. Budget and Tax Center. "If you want to cut government, tell me where you want to cut; whose children you don't want to educate or what mental health services you don't want to provide." Senate Bill 1419 has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee.
More detailed information about any of the above bills, as well as e-mail addresses for state legislators, are available online at: www.ncga.state.nc.us.