The disingenuous and minimalist Senate budget

The disingenuous and minimalist Senate budget

- in Fitzsimon File

One of the most telling comments made by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger at his news conference this week about the Senate budget didn’t concern this year’s budget at all.

It came as Berger was setting the stage for his remarks by first reminding reporters about the budget lawmakers passed last year, falling back on the now stale talking points to defend the plan that fired 3,000 teachers and teacher assistants while making unprecedented cuts to education, human services, and environmental protections.

Among Berger’s list of alleged accomplishments last year was what he called a “job creating tax cut for small business.”

That would be the tax cut that we now know went not only to small companies, but to more than 400,000 business and equity partners across North Carolina, including the principals in many of the state’s biggest law firms and medical practices.

The broad tax cut will cost the state $336 million, a price tag no one mentioned last year. It is patently absurd to call it a small businesses tax cut but that’s still the way Berger described it, creating cloud of disingenuousness that grew denser as described this year’s spending plan.

Berger said that the Senate budget spends more on public schools than last year but that ignores the $258 million in federal funding that is running out, putting 5,400 education jobs at risk, most of them classroom positions.

The federal funding for education was designed to help states weather the Great Recession without decimating public schools. The idea was that states would step up and fill in the gap when the temporary federal funding ended.

Berger would apparently rather blame the federal money than replace it.

The Senate budget does provide $74 million for public schools to prevent a state budget cut from increasing as scheduled and there’s another $85 million that local school systems can use to stave off a small portion of the job losses or to give existing personnel a pay increase.

Some Republicans have actually suggested that means that the budget includes a pay raise for teachers, which puts them firmly in Berger’s cloud too.

Local school officials who are struggling with overcrowded classes, outdated textbooks, and inadequate supplies are going to have a hard time giving anybody a raise, especially when they already can’t afford to keep the personnel they need.

The Senate budget does give state employees a 1.2 percent pay raise and spends more on the university system than the House. But it slashes funding for a host of important initiatives like mass transit and public health programs to reduce infant mortality and tobacco use.

The budget also includes Berger’s entire education reform package that recently passed the Senate. It’s based on policies adopted ten years ago in Florida, a state whose students’ performance on national tests trails their counterparts in North Carolina.

It’s not only ill-conceived, it doesn’t belong in the spending proposal but it is Berger’s way of forcing the House to consider it.

One of the bright spots in the Senate plan is that it does not include any provision or funding for the school voucher scheme proposed by House Majority Leader Paul Stam. The House budget includes startup money for the program that shifts funds from public education to unaccountable private and religious schools.

Senate Appropriations Chair Richard Stevens says the Senate took a minimalist approach in his budget. He offered that as a compliment of course.

And minimalist it is, doing very little to address the devastating cuts made last year in vital services and in the case of education, standing by and allowing thousands of educators to lose their jobs.

Senate leaders, like their House counterparts, steadfastly refused to consider any new revenue sources to restore some of last year’s cuts and to keep schools from firing more teachers.

Instead they’d rather play semantic games, shifting blame and making misleading claims to hide their decisions to send North Carolina another step backwards while putting tax cuts for wealthy lawyers ahead of teachers and schools.

Our kids and our schools and our communities deserve much better than this.