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The ideal approach would include an overhaul of the state's outdated revenue system and a broadening of sales tax base to include services.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.