If there was a prize for political exaggeration, critics of the Republican state budget plan would already be preparing their acceptance speeches.
Let’s begin with some numbers. North Carolina faces a projected fiscal gap in the coming fiscal year of up to $2.4 billion, based on a baseline budget of about $21 billion. Of that baseline amount, education at all levels makes up nearly 60 percent, or about $12 billion.
A few weeks ago, Gov. Bev Perdue proposed a budget plan that allocated $11.4 billion, or 95 percent of the baseline education budget. The education establishment wasn’t happy with the number. But there were no panicky warnings about an end to educational opportunity in North Carolina.
Now the Republican majority in the North Carolina House has announced its initial budget targets for the coming fiscal year. Instead of funding education at 95 percent of the baseline amount, Republican leaders propose to fund it at 88 percent of the baseline, or $10.6 billion.
According to Democratic lawmakers and lobbyists for schools, colleges, and universities, this GOP plan would be the educational equivalent of Armageddon. It would “jeopardize the very future of our state,” said the Senate’s top Democrat, Martin Nesbitt. It would be “beyond devastating,” said the House’s top Democrat, Joe Hackney.
Really? I’m not sure what lies “beyond devastating” on the map of budgetary hyperbole, but I seriously doubt that a journey of seven percentage points would get us there.
Would the Republican plan result in some job losses among government employees? Of course. As national comparisons show, North Carolina government is overstaffed. Perhaps if past legislatures and governors had exercised greater care when crafting budgets when times were good, there would have been more fiscal space to implement cuts gradually. But they spent too much, hired too many, saved too little, and kept taxes too high, thus reducing the growth rate of North Carolina’s private economy.
Responsible leaders deal with what is, not what might have been.
Two years ago, a Democratic governor and legislature relied on billions of dollars in “temporary” tax hikes and federal borrowing to balance the budget. Those were short-term fixes to long-term problems. Now the bill has come due. Republicans won control of the General Assembly last fall by running against the 2009 tax increases and promising not to repeat them. And both parties in Washington seem finally to understand that further increases in federal borrowing to bail out state and local governments is a foolish and counterproductive policy.
If we aren’t going to stick it to taxpayers or raid the federal treasury, the only other option is to cut the budget. Many North Carolina households and businesses have already gone through several rounds of painful cuts. Government is now going through a similar adjustment to reality.
To suggest that $10.6 billion in state funding next year represents the end of North Carolina education as we know it is a preposterous and cynical claim. If the budget targets from the House GOP end up in the final budget, here’s what will still be true:
• The University of North Carolina will still be one of the most generously funded state university systems in the United States. UNC tuitions will still be among the lowest in the country.
• North Carolina’s public schools will still not be among the most generously funded in the United States – but that only means that the more than $9,000 North Carolina will continue to spend per pupil in state, local, and federal dollars for operating and capital expenses is not as much as New Jersey or Illinois politicians are willing to spend. So what? That’s still a lot of money. North Carolina taxpayers want results, not bragging rights.
Now, to be consistent, I’m not going to claim that imposing $800 million in higher taxes to fund Perdue’s education budget rather than the Republican’s education budget would be “beyond devastating” to the state’s economy.
It would just be unwise. The scant educational benefits are not worth the economic costs. Let’s not do it.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of CarolinaJournal.com