Where's the budget?

Published July 13, 2023

By Tom Campbell

Once again we are midway through July without a state budget that was supposed to begin July 1. Why haven’t they passed a budget on time? Not trying to be snarky, the answer is because they can. The old budget remains in effect until a new one is approved.
This is an all-too-common occurrence. Legislators convened on January 11 and the budget was their primary agenda item. They’ve had six months (180+ days) to get it done, but they have been so busy waging culture wars and meddling in other affairs they can’t find time to agree. Governor Roy Cooper presented his proposed budget in mid-March and the two chambers promptly agreed upon spending targets for each of the next two years. The House passed a budget April 12 and sent it to the Senate, which passed its own version mid-May. They have had more than eight weeks to come together, reconcile their differences and vote up or down on the conference budget.
What’s holding them up? For one thing they are arguing about the size of tax cuts they intend to make. Proposals would lower personal income rates from the current 4.5 percent to as low as 2.49 percent. Lawmakers boast they can do this because of the huge (approximately $6 billion) surplus they now have.
Don’t these people read?
Since 2021, half the states have cut personal or corporate income taxes. They were awash with large surpluses, due largely to Federal COVID dollars, and boasted of easing taxpayers’ tax burdens. The COVID dollars dwindled, inflation soared, and the economy weakened. More than a few are now staring at revenue shortfalls and confess privately they cut taxes too much too fast. Shouldn’t we go cautiously?
Meanwhile lawmakers continued their campaign to wreck public district schools, voting to triple the money for private school vouchers - reckless spending passed without instituting proper controls or oversight. The NC Justice Center conducted a statewide investigation revealing at least 61 instances where private schools received more voucher money than the schools have voucher students. They found at least $2.3 million in fraudulent payments.
For instance, Mitchener University Academy in Johnston Count reported a total enrollment of 72 students last year; the state sent them vouchers for 149 students. Did every student receive two vouchers or was the school so poorly run they didn’t know? Or are they just crooked? Many of these private schools are religious based and require students to receive faith instruction. We can’t teach religion in public schools but it’s alright to give tax money to private schools to do so? And that doesn’t even factor in the lack of standards, testing or accreditation our public schools have.
And we’ve lost count on the number of laws passed targeting LGBTQ+ people, telling educators what they are allowed to say or not say regarding gender and sex. Or what books libraries can contain. And let’s make it easier for parents to fire local Superintendents. It’s among the parents’ rights? Never mind the rights of the rest of us.
Lawmakers also found time to make it harder to vote. Despite evidence of few errors in administering our elections and fewer still instances of voter fraud, our lawmakers continue to construct stumbling blocks for voting. They want voters to show proof of citizenship before obtaining an absentee ballot. And nobody can explain their blind faith in the United States Postal System. An absentee ballot not received on election day won’t be counted.
After recognizing that thousands of citizens were already gambling online, the legislature passed the “Sports wagering/horse racing wagering” bill, wanting to get some tax revenues. They estimated it would generate a lucrative $6.8 billion by year three. It won’t be long before we allow casinos and parimutuel betting with live horse races. In for a penny, in for a pound.
While expanding gambling, can somebody please explain why our state won’t reform our antiquated laws on selling liquor? State-run ABC stores are inefficient and don’t generate a pittance in tax revenues of what could be collected by licensing and taxing retail outlets.
And remember Medicaid expansion can’t begin without an approved budget. Even when they do finally compromise and pass a budget Governor Cooper has to approve or veto it. Nobody knows all the hidden “goodies” or special provisions that will be tucked within the pages of the final document.
So here we are again, in the middle of a hot, muggy July. No budget. Inordinately high vacancy rates for state employees or teachers because nobody knows what they are going to be paid. And agencies are basically stymied because they don’t know how much they will receive.
There has to be a better way to run a state, you say? You’re right. But it will require some significant changes. In the interim we’ll keep asking, Where’s the Budget?
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. Contact him at tomcamp@carolinabroadcasting.com.