Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Fitzsimon File

It’s the old right-wing ideology, not the new reality
Tuesday, November 16th, 2010
By Chris Fitzsimon

The latest absurd take on the Republicans vow to address the state's anticipated $3.5 billion budget shortfall only by slashing budgets of schools and human services is that it is the new reality.

Republican Representative-elect Bill Brawley from Mecklenburg County told the Charlotte Observer this week that the state "only has so much money" and that If that means "some things that had been funded aren't, it's unfortunate. But it's not something over which we have control."

Those things that are likely not to be funded adequately if Brawley and his colleagues have their way include the public schools, the mental health system, and programs to give at-risk kids the help they need to have a fighting chance when they get to school. That would be a lot worse than unfortunate.

And funding for all of those things is well under the control of Brawley and his fellow Republicans. The new reality they want us to accept is not reality at all, it is anti-government ideology from the right-wing think tanks whose misinformation framed the talking points for Republicans candidates during the campaign and who are now trying to convince us that the problem is simply that we have more government than we can afford.

But these people who don't believe in government in the first place. They would rather privatize public education with vouchers and tax credits than support well-funded effective public schools. They'd rather turn over health and safety regulations to their holy free market and hope that no business cuts any corners to increase profits and puts us all at risk.

It's not about having more government than we can afford. It is about having more government than the rigid right-wing ideology would allow, and that's not much government at all.

It's really not that complicated. Every state budget is a series of choices and though a $4 billion shortfall is daunting problem, it is not impossible to solve it with a combination of budget cuts and new revenue to minimize the damage the public institutions that the vast majority of North Carolinians support.

The ideal approach would include an overhaul of the state's outdated revenue system and a broadening of sales tax base to include services. That would bring in additional revenue even if the overall rate was reduced slightly. Lawmakers could also end some of the corporate tax breaks that cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

If the Republican majorities are unwilling to take on the entrenched special interests that oppose such a plan, they could at least extend the 2009 tax cuts that are set to expire at the end of this fiscal year.

That would reduce the budget shortfall by close to $1.5 billion. They could raise cigarette and alcohol taxes to raise another $250 million, tax increases which the polls show the majority of people in North Carolina support raising to save public services. That would still leave $1.5 billion to cut, not any easy task, but at least there'd be a decent chance of merely damaging vital institutions, not destroying them.

It's far from a perfect approach. The 2009 revenue package relied on an increase in the regressive sales tax to raise most of its revenue and the excise taxes are also disproportionately paid by the poor.

But people are already paying the additional taxes, and though it is a burden on low-income families that ought to be reduced in the future, the state's economic climate is hardly suffering because of the 2009 tax package.

In fact, just the opposite, as economist and Locke Foundation adjunct scholar Mike Walden points out when he describes North Carolina as one of the states that is best positioned for the economic recovery.

Confronting the special interests and reforming the revenue system is a far better plan. The worst idea is to raise no new revenue at all and instead balance the budget on the backs of teachers and people with a mental illness or a disability.

That would be more than an ill-defined new reality. That would be the intentional creation of suffering to serve a hard-line right wing ideology and that's not what the people of North Carolina want or deserve.

Friday, November 12, 2010

NC Policy Watch

A hint of things to come

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

By Chris Fitzsimon

If you are wondering how the new Republican majorities in the General Assembly will handle the state's $3.5 billion shortfall next year, a few statements in the last few days provide some clues.

The leading candidates for House Speaker, Representative Paul Stam and Representative Thom Tillis, appeared this weekend on the WRAL-TV public affairs show On the Record along with NC GOP Chair Tom Fetzer.

The program started with a news story about the potential cuts to services to people with disabilities and included a comment from an official with the ARC of North Carolina, a group that provides services to the disabled and advocates on their behalf. She said that deep cuts on top of the ones made in the last two years would be devastating and pointed out that 7,000 people are currently on the waiting list for help.

A few minutes after the story, host David Crabtree asked Fetzer if it would be a public relations problem for the Republican Party if its legislative leaders followed through on their pledge not to raise any new revenue to address the shortfall and made it up by deeply slashing the state budget and cutting services like the ones featured in the story.

Public relations may have been an odd thing to ask about, but Fetzer's response was far more troubling. He told Crabtree that "we need people to get in charge and do what's best for the whole state of North Carolina and if some special interests get trimmed along the way, then so be it."

The message was clear. People with disabilities are a special interest. Anybody who opposes the Republicans' efforts to cut 20 percent or more from education and human services must be a special interest too, people with a mental illness, teachers, at-risk kids.

It's not much different than what the head of the Locke Foundation calls advocates for people who need services or teachers who speak out for smaller classes—he lumps then all together in what he calls the "spending lobby" in Raleigh, people he thinks should be ignored or run over when it comes time to write the budget.

Tillis said shortly after the election last week that the cuts the Republicans plan to make could lead to "legitimate, sad stories about people who may end up suffering," presumably Fetzer's "special interests."

Stam told Crabtree that the university system is likely to suffer severe cuts next year and that may be an understatement. Another staff member of the Locke Foundation, whose right-wing budget proposals are a blueprint for Republicans, told a reporter that some campuses of the UNC system may have to be consolidated or closed.

That was the worst case scenario outlined by outgoing UNC President Erskine Bowles last week at his last meeting with the Board of Governors.

But it's not a worst case scenario at all to the folks at the Locke Foundation and the Republican leaders with their dogmatic refusal to consider raising new revenue. It's an opportunity, a chance to dismantle the government they loathe, regardless of the damage and pain it creates. Calling the most vulnerable people in the state a special interest hardly makes it okay to hurt them.