The news this week that legislative leaders will miss another deadline in their efforts to pass a two-year state budget that is now eight weeks overdue didn’t come as much of a surprise even though it’s disappointing and inexcusable.
Schools began Monday across the state with local education officials still unsure how many teachers and teacher assistants they will have funding for this year.
Legislative leaders keep claiming that the continuing resolutions they have passed to keep government operating fully funds school personnel while the negotiations on a final budget drag on.
That’s little consolation to schools that might find out in a few weeks that they are losing funding for many of their teacher assistants who are now busy driving school buses and helping first-graders read.
And it is not even true.
The continuing resolution does not keep teacher assistant funding at the same level while the budget is being debated in the back rooms of the Legislative Building, contrary to what many news outlets have reported.
House Appropriations Chairman Nelson Dollar found that out at a House budget committee meeting a few weeks ago after telling committee members that teacher assistant positions were fully funded in the resolution to keep government operating, only to be corrected by a legislative staff member responding to a question.
It turns out the continuing resolution does not include $25 million for teacher assistants that was funded with one-time money last year. So not only are schools worried about the final budget, they are scrambling to make up for cuts that have already been made while they wait.
Dollar also confirmed this week what teachers and state employees suspected about the spending level in the final budget agreed to with much fanfare last week. It means that all state employees, state retirees, and teachers will not receive the 2 percent cost-of-living pay increase included in the House budget.
Two percent isn’t much, but it is better than what most state workers and retirees have received in recent years and now they are not going to get it.
Many veteran teachers who have also been bypassed for pay hikes in the last few sessions as lawmakers have focused on increasing starting salaries could lose that 2 percent too, adding to the culture of disrespect that is driving long time accomplished teachers out of the classroom.
There’s simply not enough money available with the budget number that House and Senate negotiators have agreed to.
Or more correctly, they have decided that reducing taxes again — after giving corporations and a wealthy individuals a huge break last year — is more important than giving all teachers, state workers and retirees a long overdue cost-of-iving increase.
The N.C. Budget & Tax Center reports that the spending target agreed to last week is at $230 million less than what the state is projected to collect next year in tax revenue and that does not take into account the one-time revenue surplus at the end of the last fiscal year. More tax cuts are on the way.
And reportedly several senators and a Tea Party faction in the House are not happy with the spending number either— because, absurdly, they think it’s too high and would mean the state would spend too much.
That’s one of the untold stories of the ridiculous delay in the budget that is already guaranteed to be the second latest a two-year budget has been adopted since at least 1961.
Some legislators are happy about it. They don’t want a budget deal soon. The longer the budget remains in limbo, the less money the state spends and the more control they have over the spending.
Meanwhile state employees and retirees are wondering if they will get a cost-of-living increase at all and schools are already suffering and bracing for even more bad news.
Quite a troubling summer indeed on Jones Street and now it looks like the misplaced priorities won’t be finalized until the fall.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.