The possible follies of a budget deal

The possible follies of a budget deal

- in Fitzsimon File

It ought to be an interesting Memorial Day weekend for the five House Democrats who voted for the House Republican budget and are now being heavily courted by legislative leaders to support the Senate’s spending plan in what could be the final budget votes of the session next week.

The Insider State Government News Service is reporting that a deal is in the works that would adjust the Senate budget to spend more on education in exchange for the Democrats support.

The plan would be for the Senate to pass its adjusted budget next week and for the House to approve it as well, bypassing the usual conference committee that is appointed to work out the differences between House and Senate plans.

If the five House Democrats are on board and vote for the Senate budget, that gives the Republicans a veto proof majority if Governor Perdue rejects the plan.

The Insider reports that the deal includes increasing funding for education by $300 million above what the Senate has proposed and spending another $100 million in other areas. That would bring the total spending the in Senate budget to just over $19.8 billion, roughly $80 million less than Perdue’s budget.

Of course we don’t know yet how the new money would be spent and what strings will be attached. Just increasing funding for education isn’t enough.

Overall, the possibility of the deal raises as many questions as it answers, most importantly will Perdue demand that Republicans do more than just match her spending requests and remove the onerous provisions in the Senate plan that would hurt children and workers, damage public health efforts, and severely weaken important environmental protections.

It’s fine that the Republicans realize they need to make more public investments than they have been willing to consider but there is more to this budget than that.

Here are ten things that Perdue ought to make Republicans take out of the budget before she signs it, even if they increase spending to the level she recommends. There are more than ten, but this would be a good start.

1. Making it more difficult for workers to receive unemployment. House and Senate leaders have made it clear how they feel about unemployed workers this session by delaying an extension of benefits for 37, 000 people without a job.

The Senate budget includes the extension but also has provisions that would it make it harder for workers to receive unemployment benefits in the future. Perdue can’t let that stand.

2. Crippling Smart Start. The Senate budget abolishes the N.C. Partnership for Children, the statewide board and staff of the nationally acclaimed Smart Start early childhood program.

3. Transferring More at Four. The Senate budget also transfers More at Four, the highly successful early childhood program for at-risk kids, from the Department of Public Instruction to a new division in the Department of Health and Human Services.

More at Four is an education program and ought to be left in education as even some Republican Senators have suggested. The attacks on Smart Start and More at Four seem based more on settling old political grudges than doing what’s best for children. The track records of both of these important programs are clear.

4. Banning environmental, labor and farm regulations stricter than federal standards. The Senate budget would prohibit North Carolina from adopting any worker safety rule or environmental regulation tougher than federal regulations, which are often established as a baseline for states not a ceiling.

North Carolina had these handcuffs on the books in the 1970s and they were finally repealed after years of battles with corporate interests. Republicans are supposed be for more power for the states not less.

5. Gutting the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. (DENR) The Senate budget transfers the management of state forests and soil and water conservation from DENR to the Department of Agriculture, where agribusiness rules.

6. Elimination of the Health and Wellness Trust Fund. The Senate abolishes the Fund that has been a leader in the fight against teen smoking and obesity. It is funded with part of the annual proceeds from the national settlement agreement with tobacco companies. Perdue ought to know plenty about this one. She was chair of the Fund’s board as Lieutenant Governor.

7. Elimination of the Drug Treatment Court and Sentencing Services. The Senate budget eliminates all funding for the highly successful drug courts that keep nonviolent drug offenders out of prison and in treatment. That saves the state money and makes it more likely the offenders can turn their lives around.

It also eliminates Sentencing Services, another highly successful prison alternative program. Why would lawmakers rather spend more money to send more people to prison?

8. Elimination of Teaching Fellows. The Senate budget phases out the program that provides scholarships for college students who are studying to become teachers. Why in the world would we want to end this program? It ought to be expanded.

9. Reducing or eliminating “optional” Medicaid services. The Senate budget slashes services including dental and optical care from the most vulnerable people in the state. Making it harder for people with a disability to see or visit a dentist is offensive and cruel.

10. Gutting the State Board of Elections. The Senate budget moves responsibility for campaign finance regulation and investigations from the Board of Elections to a new agency, the State Board of Ethics and Elections Enforcement that will also oversee ethics and lobbyist regulation.

Six of the new board’s nine members will be appointed by legislative leaders and three by the governor. The governor appoints three of the five members of the current State Board of Elections.

This is a purely political move. It makes no sense to take away the oversight of election laws from people have developed the capacity and expertise to enforce them.

If there is a budget deal between House and Senate leaders and the five Democrats, we won’t know all the details until next week like where the additional money came from, where it goes in the Senate plan, and what happens to all the bad policy provisions.

If House and Senate leaders are sincere about crafting a compromise that Governor Perdue can support, they need to spend most of the holiday weekend at work. There is an awful lot in the Senate budget that needs changing.