I don’t think that I am alone when I say most of the time I spend thinking about our State Legislature involves a repetitive series of actions: groan, grind teeth, scratch head, and sigh. I certainly have done a lot of that this summer, as the legislative sessions careened out of control, threatening many of the things that I hold dear (health care, educational access, the environment, for a start).
But now that the budget has been signed by Governor McCrory—in a banner-raising publicity event deemed a “victory lap” by Roy Cooper, his opponent in the upcoming election—we need to take stock of what it actually entails. There are plenty of opportunities for a “thumbs down” to specific policy and budget decisions – but in an uncharacteristically optimistic move, I would like to spend the some time focusing on what I think that the budget got right this year. Don’t worry, we can also go back to groaning, teeth-grinding, head scratching, and sighing when we talk about the rest of the budget.
1. Pre-K. Putting our tax dollars to good use, the budget added $1.325 million in recurring funds (which means we get to keep it) for 260 new pre-K slots. Women AdvaNCe has spent a lot of time talking about the lack of available early childhood education, and this funding is definitely a step in the right direction.
However, before we start patting ourselves on the back, I offer a hard dose of perspective. The initial proposal by the House and the governor included $4 million for 800 spots, and it got reduced in the “compromise” to 260 spots. Also, the number of children in North Carolina on the waitlist for the state’s pre-K programs? More than 7,000.
2. Teacher Salaries. The state budget included funds to raise public school teacher salaries an average of 4.7%, which will bring up the average salary in the state to over $50,000. For all of my teacher friends who have been thinking about leaving the state or changing professions, this is definitely a welcome initiative. And considering North Carolina currently ranks 41st in teacher pay and the state is hemorrhaging teachers, this raise cannot come quickly enough.
3. Childcare subsidies. In addition to not cutting the Smart Start program (thanks, y’all), the budget provides $3.45 million in preschool childcare subsidies for the poorest counties in the state.
One of the things that our legislatures don’t tell you about these improvements in preschool childcare subsidies is that a lot of the money is coming from federal grants. This does not diminish its benefit, but you should know that this is not all out of the goodness of your legislator’s heart.
4. Healthy living. The budget includes $250,000 for the Health Corner Store Initiative, which targets local shops and small stores, aiming to increase the amount of fresh produce available in many of the counties designated as food deserts across the state.
Again, a great start, but $250,000 in a budget of over $22.34 billion is not going to fix the big problems in nutritional deficiency in the state.
This is an election year, as we are all aware. Moves like reducing income taxes and increasing teacher pay are the right ones to make if you are planning on running for reelection. And while I am relieved for these inclusions, I am skeptical for the motivation behind them and strongly believe that, whatever the changes made, they do not go nearly far enough to address the shrinking state budget that prioritizes industry and those in the top five percent of the income bracket.
Let’s keep our eye on the ball, shall we?