Budget debate to lackadaisical start


House and Senate leaders couldn’t meet their budget deadline of June 30, the end of the state fiscal year, so they approved a continuing budget resolution this week to give themselves 45 more days.

Next week they will be on vacation and two weeks after that many Republican lawmakers plan to be in San Diego for the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council.

It’s true, as supporters of the General Assembly have pointed out, that not having a final budget by June 30 is relatively common. Lawmakers have passed continuing resolutions many summers while they hashed out final budget details.

But the resolutions usually come after some effort at negotiations between House and Senate budget writers and the extensions are usually for 10 days or maybe two weeks, not a month and a half.

And there’s never been a case when lawmakers gave themselves 45 more days and promptly took the next week off. It’s especially noteworthy coming from Republicans, who promised a more transparent and efficiently run General Assembly when they won control of the House and Senate in the 2010 election.

It is not exactly working out that way.

The unusual budget delay and legislative vacation come as schools across North Carolina are gearing up for the academic year that begins in roughly six weeks in many counties.

School officials don’t know how many teacher assistants they can hire.

The House budget leaves funding for TAs at the same level as last year, down several thousand from just a few years ago. The Senate wants to abolish funding for 5,300 more TAs in the new fiscal year and 3,200 more the year after that with most of the money saved to be used to hire more teachers to lower class sizes in the early grades.

Many TAs perform a host of duties at schools in addition to helping teachers in the classrooms, driving buses, acting as school nurses, and playing key roles in school crisis teams among them. It’s not clear how lawmakers think school administrators can staff all those jobs without TAs. That hasn’t been part of the debate.

Putting aside the questionable policy decision, it would be a herculean task for schools to make the appropriate personnel moves if the final budget passed this week. It will be next to impossible if it takes another 45 days for lawmakers to make final funding decisions.

And it’s not just personnel. The House and Senate budgets include different amounts for textbook funding and digital resources too.

Legislative leaders say the $100 million for student enrollment increases included in the continuing budget resolution gives schools the flexibility they need to weather the long budget delay but that puts school leaders in a tough situation and it doesn’t solve their problems.

They know they will need the money for additional students but they still have no idea how many TAs or teachers to hire to teach them, or how many books they can order or who will drive the buses when students are waiting in their neighborhoods in the middle of August, at roughly the same time the new budget deadline approved this week expires.

As Governor Pat McCrory pointed out in a letter to lawmakers this week, 40 other state legislatures have passed budgets while the General Assembly has been session for almost six months and as McCrory said, “the people of North Carolina cannot continue to wait as that honorable work turns into negotiation tactics that stall our progress.”

The public doesn’t generally pay a lot attention to stories about missed deadlines, legislative bickering, and an undemocratic process where major policy shifts are snuck into the budget.

Legislative leaders are counting on that being true again and most media accounts are downplaying the unusually long continuing budget resolution and the lack of urgency in the General Assembly to reach a final agreement.

But things are different this year with the stark disagreements between the House and Senate about who will be working at schools when students show up in six weeks and the lackadaisical attitude of the budget writers toward the schools’ dilemmas.

Gov. McCrory is right. The people of North Carolina cannot wait. Neither can the schools. And they shouldn’t have to. Let’s get on with it.

Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of NC Policy Watch.

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