State budget negotiators can and should choose a better path

State budget negotiators can and should choose a better path

The recent proposal from state Senate leaders for the next two-year state budget compromises North Carolina’s future by underinvesting in our communities while prioritizing the special interests of a select few.

As House and Senate leaders confer on the final budget, let’s be clear that a different path — one that involves smart investments and better outcomes — is possible.

By many indicators, well-being varies greatly across North Carolina. Poverty is persistently high, good jobs are out of reach for many, too many children and families face food insecurity, and at least a half a million lack access to quality and affordable health care. Public investments can bridge barriers to opportunity by providing affordable job training and matching employers to workers, by funding school nutrition programs and access to healthy food options in more communities, and by closing the coverage gap and taking advantage of federal funding.

When the well-being of individual North Carolinians are impeded today, it affects our collective well-being over the long-term. We know that when families have enough to eat and a roof over their heads, children are better able to learn and parents are able to both benefit from and contribute to their communities. We know that when people have access to affordable, quality health care, their health outcomes improve and, along with it, their employment outcomes and the well-being of entire communities.  We know that when the hardships of poverty are lessened with income supports, parents can provide their children with quality child care experiences and stable housing.

A collective investment today to promote the well-being of every North Carolinian will serve us all well in the form of stronger, more equitable economic growth, community and civic connections, and the upward mobility across generations that has been thwarted by past policy choices and persistent under-investment.

A final budget that takes both the House and Senate proposals as a starting point embraces the false notion that we can’t afford to achieve more for our state. It accepts the continued flawed argument that we must cut taxes for big companies and rich people to make them want to stay or come to North Carolina. It accepts the erroneous premise that only these few have the power to build thriving communities.

The reality is that our collective power and collective contributions through taxes can make a better future possible for our state. We have to commit to those smart investments rather than shortchanging them. We have to call on our leaders to embrace what we know works to strengthen opportunity rather than pursue poorly performing tax-cut experiments time and again.

Both the House and Senate would this year cut taxes again and hold spending down to an arbitrary low level. The tax cuts will compound the years of reductions to state revenue that have not delivered on their economic promises. Instead, year after year there are children waiting to receive quality child care and pre-K education, workers seeking skills but blocked by high tuition and few slots to retrain for jobs of the future, and communities without the infrastructure or funding to support local entrepreneurs.

Across a range of areas, the Senate and House budgets miss the opportunity to advance smart public investments.

  • Despite additional federal dollars for child care assistance, the Senate and House budgets make no significant progress on reducing the list of more than 30,000 children who are waiting for assistance to access quality child care programs.
  • Despite federal funding available to close the coverage gap for half a million North Carolinians through Medicaid expansion, the Senate and House budgets do not commit to providing this affordable health care that boosts health outcomes.
  • Rather than restoring public school funding to pre-recession levels — a low standard that still remains out of reach — the Senate and House budgets continue to under-fund our schools and under-invest in our teachers.
  • Despite the need to support justice-involved youth and divert them from the adult criminal justice system, the Senate and House budgets fail to meet the funding levels recommended by an expert advisory committee.

An agreement by Senate and House leaders through the conference process that ignores daily realities across North Carolina will compromise our future.  Just as in the past when our state has built great institutions and made significant progress toward improving the lives of North Carolinians through a collective commitment, our leaders can choose to do so again. But they must embrace the reality that public investments are necessary to help our communities and all North Carolinians thrive.

Alexandra Sirota is the Director of the North Carolina Budget & Tax Center.