One of the most telling parts of the long debate on the House budget Thursday night and early Friday morning came in a discussion over an amendment offered by Rep. Marilyn Avila to end tax credits for renewable energy, the latest round of what has become a crusade against solar energy by the Tea Party right.
The majority of the House had the good sense to defeat the attempt to dismantle the state’s thriving alternative energy economy, but in her remarks Avila reminded members of the House that she was co-chair of the subcommittee that put together the health and human services part of the budget.
Avila said the committee was faced with life and death decisions when deciding what to fund, and that the budget lacked adequate money to provide child care for at-risk kids, address needs of traumatic brain injured patients, and provide services for the mentally ill “who have been sent back to their communities for treatment that isn’t there.”
It was an interesting reminder of some things the House budget didn’t do by one of the people who put the budget together. Avila blamed the renewable energy tax credits but she didn’t mention the automatic reduction in the corporate income tax going into effect this year that costs a lot more than the solar tax credit program.
Not many other Republicans lamented what the budget didn’t do. They were busy boasting about all they said it accomplished, many of them mentioning that the spending plan fully funds enrollment increases at public schools and the university system and pays for the additional people expected to sign up for Medicaid.
They pointed out that the budget finds the money to keep the same number of teacher assistants in the classroom—after cutting funds for several thousand TAs in the last four years.
The budget does not make more cuts to schools or health care. Break out the champagne.
And yes there is a two-percent raise for teachers and state employees that might keep their spending power the same for another year instead of allowing them to call fall further behind.
The additional investments in textbooks and drivers education are welcome too, as is increased funding for some conservation programs and a few specific human services initiatives.
But overall the House budget is remarkable for the folks currently running the General Assembly only because it does not make things appreciably worse in North Carolina as their last few budgets did.
It keeps things as bad as they were for the last few years.
One of the headlines about the budget earlier in the week was “North Carolina budget decisions aren’t as painful with $400m cushion,” referring to the one-time revenue surplus expected at the end of the current fiscal year.
The budget decisions were only “painful” for the last four years because legislative leaders chose to make tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy the priority, forcing the deep cuts to public schools and universities and human services.
House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters that that it was nice to be able to “talk about being able to restore some funding after all the years of cuts we had to make.”
They didn’t have to make the cuts because they didn’t have to give millionaires a $10,000 a year tax windfall last session. They could have avoided firing teachers and teacher assistants and found the money to take care of those at-risk kids that Rep. Avila talked about.
They could have done it in the last four years and they could have done this year too.
But that’s what budget debates have come to in the General Assembly, celebrating not making things worse, though there are still places where the House plan fails even that test—more money for unaccountable private school vouchers comes to mind.
There will be a lot more detailed analysis of the House budget in the next few weeks as Senate leaders continue their work behind closed doors putting their version of the budget together.
The Senate plan will make fewer investments than the meager House budget and may include additional tax cuts making it even harder to fund vital programs that have been repeatedly slashed in recent years.
In the current political reality in the General Assembly then, the House budget becomes the starting point for negotiations that can only go in the wrong direction. The final spending plan can only get worse for education, human services, and the environment.
Rep. Avila was right to point out some of the many areas where the budget fell short but she was wrong about why.
Lawmakers didn’t lack the adequate resources to do more, they lacked the political will to take another look at the tax cuts they passed last session and the next round going into effect this year. Think about that amid all the surprising praise for the House budget.
All they managed to do was to keep most state services the same for now—until the Senate gets a crack at the plan.
That is nothing to celebrate any time but especially not when it represents the best that is likely to come from this General Assembly as the 2015 budget debate continues.