The N.C. Senate’s budget manifesto

Senate leaders didn’t just unveil a budget proposal this week, they released a 504-page ideological wish list that makes dramatic changes to the state Medicaid system, repeals important health care regulations, rewrites economic development policy, changes who oversees the licensing of teachers and prohibits Wake County from voting on a half-cent sales tax increase for transit improvements.

It creates new state departments, changes the way local sales tax revenues are distributed, ends a longstanding tax break for nonprofits and closes a school for mentally ill children.

It ends state funding for the N.C. Biotechnology Center, the Human Relations Commission, the Office of Minority Health and the Hunt Institute for Educational Leadership.

And it eliminates more than 8,500 teacher assistant jobs in public schools while increasing funding for the state’s sketchy and likely unconstitutional school voucher scheme.

And that’s only a few of the lowlights.

It’s not just a budget, it’s a right-wing manifesto crafted behind closed doors by Senate leaders who are rushing it though committees and floor votes this week before most senators and the people they represent can comprehend the true scope of what it would do.

Not too many years ago, the same Republican Senate leaders remaking state government in this year’s budget bill complained when Democrats put major policy decisions in the budget. But there’s never been anything like this.

The actual fiscal decisions are troubling enough. Senate leaders want to spend just 2 percent more than last year with most of the new funding paying for enrollment increases and inflationary adjustments.

Two notable exceptions are the proposals to hire additional teachers to reduce class size in the early grades and to give another pay raise to teachers early in their careers. The Senate budget pays for those proposals by laying off more than 8,500 teacher assistants over the next two years and leaving many veteran teachers with a small raise or no raise at all.

And even when the Senate budget claims to make investments, there’s almost always a catch. The budget funds the increased enrollment at UNC campuses, but then imposes another $35 million “flexibility” cut over the next two years.

The budget finally includes a modest increase in funding for the woefully underfunded court system, but bizarrely provides no new money for technology upgrades, a top priority for court officials including Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin.

And the increases are few and far between. The Senate budget would slash funding for N.C. Pre-K resulting in a loss of 520 slots for at-risk kids in a program that already falls well short of serving the children who need it.

Ironically, that comes in a budget that also calls for increasingly punitive measures for schools with high percentages of at-risk low-income students who don’t perform well under the state’s arbitrary A-F grading system.

The investments are limited because Senate leaders also included more tax cuts in the spending plan, reductions that will eventually cost more than a billion dollars when fully implemented.

Those are precious resources that could instead be used to restore the damaging cuts to education made in recent years and to repair the gaping holes torn in the state’s safety net designed to help the most vulnerable people.

Tax cuts were again the priority of the Senate leadership this year — tax cuts and boasting about how little they were investing in the state and its people while using the budget to make sweeping fundamental changes to state policy with no time for real discussion of their impact.

Senate leaders also declined to restore the historic preservation tax credit program that is a top priority of Gov. Pat McCrory and don’t seem too interested in the transportation bond McCrory has been touting either.

They don’t seem too worried about disappointing the governor, whose recent vetoes they recently overrode in a reminder of who is running things in Raleigh these days.

The budget the House passed last month was a relatively anemic attempt at addressing the state’s most pressing needs, though at least it gave every teacher and state employee a raise. The Senate plan falls far short of the inadequate House effort, and a final budget that splits the difference simply won’t invest enough to begin to repair the damage inflicted in the last few legislative sessions.

Senate leaders did take a break from ramming their massive budget bill through committees to take part in the annual milk-chugging contest at the Legislative Building Tuesday afternoon.

Then the policy chugging resumed — and it was hard to tell the difference.

Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch, a progressive public policy think tank affiliated with the North Carolina Justice Center.