Members of the new Republican majority in Raleigh say they're determined to cut the state's projected $3.7 billion shortfall solely through huge spending cuts. Once they start slicing, however, they'll doubtless find that cutting such a massive chunk from the budget is much harder to do than to promise. Luckily, there is a simple, popular way to reduce the budget shortfall by more than a billion dollars without raising taxes. If only the state's new bosses would consider it.
It's still unclear exactly how new Senate leader Phil Berger and new House Speaker Thom Tillis plan to butcher the budget ox, although last week they told Raleigh's daily paper they're inclined to end programs that "don't work," while letting state agency heads make the cuts themselves. That would be an easy way out for the GOP: mandate severe budget targets, and then blame agency leaders once public complaints start to pile up over all the lost jobs, closed hospitals, and sacked teachers.
The overriding problem is the enormity of the budget shortfall — more enormous than many citizens have yet grasped. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, N.C. has the third largest revenue shortfall (as a percentage of the current state budget) of any state in the nation. As the NC Policy Watch (NCPW) think tank has pointed out, legislators could do away with entire departments, not just programs — including abolishing the whole judicial branch of government, plus the entire community college system — and still come up $700 million short of their cost-cutting goal. The predicament gets even more complicated when you consider state spending's vast impact on the economy. The state is N.C.'s largest employer and, by a large margin, its biggest investor in health care, education, and help for low-income families. Even Gov. Perdue's cost-cutting plans, which Republicans say aren't enough, would add 21,000 more people to the unemployment rolls and prolong the Great Recession in the state, according to research by the N.C. Justice Center.
Here in Charlotte, school leaders and parents are anxiously waiting to hear how much the GOP wants to cut from the education budget. Gov. Perdue's plan would slash 6,000 teaching jobs and 13,000 teacher assistant positions, and yet the GOP says that's not enough, which leads to the obvious question: Just how lousy do the Republicans want our public schools to be? Follow their plan, and we'll wind up with Afghanis coming here to build our schools.
Just in case you think Mecklenburg schools may catch a break because the new House Speaker and the co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee (Bob Rucho) are from this county, think again. So far, Tillis is toeing the party line of massive cuts, and Rucho made it clear last week that his party's top concern is still what it always has been, is now, and ever shall be: protecting business profits. Rucho declared that his "number one priority" is "ensuring that we have a tax system in place that encourages growth in the private sector and does not antagonize businesses who (sic) want to find a home in North Carolina." A reasonable person could assume that businesses might want to relocate to N.C. because of, among other reasons, the state's fine public school system, but that's not what Rucho & Co. have in mind.
Now, about that simple way to reduce the shortfall by more than a billion dollars without raising taxes: All it would take is to leave the current "temporary" sales tax, and the tax rate on wealthy residents, the same as it is now for the coming year. It's something that nearly 60 percent of North Carolinians support, according to a recent nonpartisan Elon poll. The GOP, though, refuses to consider it. Granted, leaving the tax rates alone would still leave us in a $2.7 billion hole; but when you're in that deep, cutting a quick billion is a good place to start, and a sensible way to manage a government.
One thing is for sure: If the $3.7 billion shortfall is handled through spending cuts alone, North Carolina will be left with a second-rate excuse for a state government; many of its people will be worse off; our public schools will be in the crapper; and desperately needed human services will be a mere memory.