These are fascinating times in Raleigh for political junkies and folks in the public policy world, as House and Senate leaders of the same political party trade budget offers back and forth and Gov. Pat McCrory weighs in with strong words and photo ops and veto threats. But there is a devastating subplot for public schools just below the surface of all the legislative intrigue.
Most of the current public dispute is about teacher pay, teacher assistants and Medicaid.
The original Senate budget proposed slashing funding for 7,400 TAs and kicking thousands of vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities off of Medicaid and into the street, all to raise enough revenue to give teachers an 11 percent pay hike if they agreed to give up career status protections.
The original House budget called for a 5 percent teacher pay raise paid for with higher lottery revenues and deeper cuts to the university system that has been hammered with big funding reductions in the last three years.
Now, after several weeks of sometimes testy public and private negotiations, the two sides are closer to a budget deal, but the main issues left to be resolved are the same— teacher pay, teacher assistants and Medicaid.
The Senate’s latest offer would give teachers an 8 percent raise and fire only half of the 7,400 teacher assistants, though it would keep the other 3,700 on the job with temporary funding, putting them at risk too. And it would reduce the number of vulnerable people kicked off Medicaid, but several thousand would still be left without coverage.
The House has offered a 6 percent raise, but House leaders and McCrory continue to resist firing teacher assistants and making the Senate Medicaid cuts. Senate leaders made things worse this week, rolling out a separate Medicaid reform plan that could turn over the program to out-of-state, for-profit managed care companies, a move blasted by McCrory and much of the state’s medical community.
Those are the highlights of what has been happening in Raleigh in the last several weeks of this unusual legislative session, Republicans fighting among themselves and with their governor, arguing about how much more they will compensate teachers and how to pay for it.
The headlines about the budget negotiations and the rhetoric from the lawmakers involved has created a misleading narrative in Raleigh that even some people who should know better are falling for.
It is true that House leaders and McCrory are currently defending teacher assistants and that Senate leaders are demanding bigger raises for public school teachers, but that doesn’t mean this is a battle over who supports education more.
Hardly. In fact, the opposite is true. Here are two compelling numbers left out of most of the play-by-play accounts of the back and forth about the budget.
House leaders want to slash $293 million in public school funding from the budget adopted last year, making up some of the difference with revenues from the lottery they used to vehemently oppose. The Senate wants to cut $436 million.
That is the real debate — how much to reduce education funding, not expand it, and that’s because of the massive tax cut for the wealthy passed by lawmakers last year and the next round of tax reductions set to go into effect Jan. 1.
The N.C Budget & Tax Center reports that stopping the next round of tax cuts would save about $100 million in the 2015 fiscal year and $300 million in the 2015 calendar year. That would go a long way toward giving teachers a raise without firing teacher assistants or kicking people with dementia off of Medicaid.
The BTC says that while the reported cost of last year’s tax plan is just over $700 million for the 2015 fiscal year, the state actually stands to lose more than $1 billion in state revenue next year when using the latest taxpayer information.
Lawmakers should not fire thousands of teacher assistants or kick people off Medicaid and teachers do deserve a significant raise. But the way to do that is not to slash public school budgets by $300 million. It’s to stop the next round of tax breaks for the wealthy at a minimum, if not reconsider the windfalls they received last year.
Unless House and Senate leaders come to their senses soon, public schools and the students who attend them will lose mightily regardless of which chamber prevails when a budget deal is finally made.
Viewed in that context, this budget soap opera is more maddening than entertaining, and threatens to do more damage to North Carolina as the session finally draws to a close.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch, a progressive think tank affiliated with the North Carolina Justice Center.