As we were adding our voice to the growing chorus of those who insist that it is way past time for the General Assembly to adopt a two-year spending plan that was supposed take effect July 1, news arrived of a breakthrough.
The state Senate and House announced on Tuesday they had reached an agreement on how much money the state will spend during the current fiscal year, $21.74 billion, a figure that is closer to the Senate’s more frugal version than that of the House’s.
Since they control the House, Senate and Governor’s Mansion, this delay can only be laid at the feet of Republicans, who have insisted they stand for a more streamlined and efficient budget. And while it is true that past General Assemblies have also been tardy in getting the state budget crafted and signed into law, this General Assembly, which has twice approved stop-gap measures to keep the government functioning, is now 50 days late — and that is exceptional by any past standard.
Senate and House negotiators again this week are trying to hammer out differences in their respective budgets to try to meet what would be their third deadline of Aug. 31. With Tuesday’s announcement, the two chambers at least know how much money they will spending, an important first step to finalizing any budget.
But the devil will be in the details — and few others emerged on Tuesday.
The Senate has wanted to cut funding for 8,500 teacher assistants and use that money to hire 3,200 new teachers, which Republican leadership in that chamber say would mean smaller classrooms and enhance the learning environment for children. It also remained unclear if the state will continue to fund driver’s education programs across the state; the Public Schools of Robeson County’s program is currently suspended.
Local school officials say they can begin the school year with teacher assistants who will be paid with Title I money, federal dollars that are funnelled to poor school systems. Robeson County employs 408 teacher assistants who earn about $21,000 a year, money that is critical to local households who depend on each penny of income. Although the TA’s were expected at work on Tuesday when staff reported, it’s unclear if the money exists to keep them employed throughout the year, or if the local system will use those dollars for that purpose.
What makes all this worse is that legislators took a rare week off following the July Fourth holiday, at which point the budget was already tardy. That lack of urgency on the part of the legislators only makes the delay more difficult to defend.
We hope that Tuesday’s news provides the momentum needed to get the budget ball rolling and it signed into law. It’s incredibly unfair that state government is being held hostage, and especially so for our school systems that already have a difficult assignment.
It is much worse than unfair for the students in this state who depend on our lawmakers to provide funding so they can get educated.