When the Legislature finished its work on Aug. 11 and adjourned after seven months in Raleigh, House Speaker Joe Hackney said the session would be remembered for saving public education. That followed recent comments by Gov. Beverly Perdue who, after signing the budget in private, claimed it protected education.
The view is far less heroic from this vantage point, where it appears lawmakers pushed the tough decisions aside in favor of expediency. While there are education bright spots, they are far too few to warrant state leaders patting themselves on the back.
East Carolina University officials were no doubt pleased recently when the $19 billion spending plan won approval. The University of North Carolina system lost only 6 percent in funding, less than expected, and two key capital projects were included. East Carolina received $3 million for the dental school, keeping that project on schedule, and $2 million for indigent care funding, a university priority.
On the other hand, public schools face huge cuts, with lawmakers giving local administrators the responsibility of identifying $225 million in savings. That could mean the loss of teaching positions in some schools, and certainly means larger class sizes in most. Perdue may have turned back a previous budget agreement by objecting to larger class sizes in all grades, but the governor accepted a deal in which only grades K-3 are protected.
For all the good done with the university system, most students will pay a higher tuition for an education that, according to the state Constitution, should be as free from expense as possible. The Legislature voted to charge out-of-state athletes with in-state tuition rates and the university system will continue a practice of paying administrators full salaries when they return to the classroom. Those provisions represent millions in potential savings.
This was, without question, a tremendously challenging budget year. No area of state government was immune to the squeeze of a $4.5 billion revenue shortfall, and the budget includes cuts to areas like mental health and corrections.
But instead of exploring innovative avenues, including the type of comprehensive tax reform proposed in the N.C. Senate, lawmakers chose to tread the existing ones. They raised the sales tax, among others, a regressive tax that disproportionately harms the type of working families state leaders purport to protect.
North Carolina’s motto is Esse Quam Videri. Maybe when the back-slapping stops, lawmakers can try remembering its meaning, “To Be Rather Than to Seem.”