One of the most telling aspects of the release of Governor Pat McCrory’s budget recommendations this week was the poster board prominently displayed next to McCrory and State Budget Director Art Pope as they discussed the details of their spending plan.
The poster listed the top ten things not in the budget— items like temporary tax increases and withholding money from local governments. Pope said it was all about changing the budget culture and ending the practice of using accounting maneuvers to balance the state’s books.
It was odd theme to emphasize at an announcement of a budget heavily promoted for including a pay raise for teachers and state employees. It was Pope as budget scold as well as budget director.
Then there are the details of the $20.1 billion spending plan, which other than the salary increases is not much of a budget at all, doing little to restore some of the damaging cuts made to education and human services in the last three years and stunningly making even more cuts to an already strapped university system to help fund the raises.
And the pay hikes aren’t much, two percent for most teachers, a $1,000 flat increase in compensation and benefits for most state employees—which comes to about $800 year more in take home pay.
The politics of the day forced McCrory’s hand. He had to do something to respond to the outcry over the state’s scandalously low teacher pay that now ranks 46th in the nation and is prompting teachers to the leave the state’s classrooms in droves, headed for neighboring states where they can make a decent salary or leaving the profession altogether.
But teachers aren’t just looking for a one time small raise. They want a long-term strategy and a demonstrated commitment to returning teacher pay to the national average and beyond. This budget does not provide it.
And just as importantly, McCrory’s budget provides few new investments in schools beyond the raise for teachers.
It does reallocate some lottery proceeds to increase funding for textbooks that he cut last year but that’s a band aid not a plan. Lottery money is also diverted to pay for McCrory’s Career Pathways program for teachers. So much for ending the accounting tricks.
There’s no money to rehire the teacher assistants that were fired, nothing to restore the cuts to classrooms supplies or no new funds for support services for teachers and students that were also slashed.
This is not a pro education budget. It is a cynical political budget using a slight increase in teacher pay to deflect some of the recent criticism of deep education cuts.
The narrative released with the budget strains to make a positive case, touting for example the $3.6 million it spends to expand NC PreK and proclaiming that the program serves 26,000 children.
But that’s not new funding either— it’s also reallocated lottery proceeds. And it would allow only a few hundred more kids to sign up out of the more than 50,000 4-year-olds who are eligible. It falls short of even restoring the cuts made last year that reduced the number of slots. Four years ago there were 35,000 children in the program.
McCrory does propose to hire more inspectors in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which seems like the least he can do after a massive coal ash spill and three years of deep cuts to the department.
Overall, the budget seems more like a document designed to make it through the election year than set a progressive path forward for the state. It is limited by the tax cuts lawmakers passed last session that created a shortfall of $191 million for the coming year on top of the $440 million in lost revenue already built into the forecast.
And the shortfall may grow. Some analysts believe the cost of the tax cuts may be several hundred million dollars more than projected. McCrory didn’t dare revisit the tax changes or even postpone the next round of reductions that will take effect in January. His right-wing base and his budget director wouldn’t stand for that.
Instead he cut the universities more and moved money around to grab a few headlines and give teachers and state workers a small raise.
The poster board that Pope brought to the budget announcement listing the top ten things not in the spending plan left out two things.
Also missing were a positive vision of where North Carolina should be headed and the desperately needed investments in its people and key institutions to get it there.