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Lawmakers trying to have it both ways

Rob Schofield Contributing columnist

July 10, 2014

Those who attended or watched online yesterday as conferees debated next steps in resolving the stalemate between the House and the Senate over North Carolina’s FY 2015 state budget must have felt at times as if they had stepped into some kind of time/space warp. Surely these weren’t members of the 2014 North Carolina General Assembly holding forth on the state’s inexcusable underinvestment in public education and the critical importance of providing high quality, publicly-funded health insurance to people in need.


Heck, some of the rhetoric was even downright progressive and inspiring. One could almost feel the inhabitants of the local right-wing think tanks squirming uneasily in their seats as Senators and Representatives tried their best to outdo each other in professing their dedication to preserving and enhancing the core structures and services of government. In instance after instance, central tenets and talking points of conservative, market fundamentalist orthodoxy were tossed overboard like so much deadweight from a sinking ship.


There was Senator Jerry Tillman – a man who previously praised Strom Thurmond on the Senate floor this session and who usually does his utmost to sound like a cranky Tea Partier – passionately defending the Senate’s plan to raise teacher salaries by 11% so that North Carolina could rapidly return to the national average.


And then there was the Senate’s chief conservative enforcer, Rules Committee chairman Tom Apodaca, complaining that “we have balanced our budgets on the backs of K-12 and teachers for the last 30 years.”


It was as if Senators had gotten their talking points from former Governor Jim Hunt.


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By all indications, the driving force behind the conservative legislature’s newly-discovered love for public education and health care is the recognition amongst its leaders that they’re getting nowhere politically with their wars on public schools and the poor. For all of its imperfections and all of the gripes that all parents of schoolchildren have, public education remains overwhelmingly popular amongst voters. Those voters flatly reject the notion so long advanced by the John Locke Foundation, Pope-Civitas Institute and others on the ideological right that North Carolina schools are more-than-adequately funded and teachers generously paid.


To the contrary, voters understand that schools and teachers are suffering mightily and are demanding action. Any conservative politician who ignores this reality – even true believers who do so in the service of deep commitment to ideology – do so at their own electoral risk.


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As refreshing and encouraging as it is to hear influential North Carolina politicians talk about the importance of raising teacher salaries to the national average and helping the poor, one should not lose sight of the truck-sized hole in the logic and rhetoric emanating from Jones Street. Most notable in this regard is the failure of legislative leaders to acknowledge the devastating impact of the unnecessary and destructive tax cuts they enacted last year.


According to the best and most recent estimates, the 2013 tax cuts — which overwhelmingly favor the state’s most wealthy taxpayers — are costing the state more than $500 million in foregone revenue in the fiscal year that began last week. Add to this the fact that the cuts have caused a downward revision of revenue projections by another $190 million and the gap may well balloon to more than $700 million.


Even if lawmakers left these cuts in place, however, and merely stopped the implementation of a yet another round of tax cuts scheduled to take effect next January, the state would still realize $300 million in additional revenue in calendar year 2015 – more than enough to make a significant dent in the education shortfall and solve innumerable problems in the current negotiations.


Unfortunately, revenue talk has been completely absent from the budget negotiations. Despite the simplicity and overwhelming popularity amongst voters of raising taxes on the wealthy, legislative leaders will brook no compromise in this realm — not even a temporary delay in the implementation of a new and wholly unnecessary round of rate cuts.


Rob Schofield is a columnist for NC Policy Watch.