Leading from the Left

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Thoughts on the State Budget

State Legislative budget negotiators are working diligently to compromise and find common ground between the two versions of the budget—one passed by the Senate, one passed by the House. Below are some of my thoughts on what should and should not be funded in a final appropriations bill.

Mental Health. Both House and Senate budgets fail to adequately provide money for mental health programs in NC. Our mental health system is a disaster and needs rescuing immediately. Instead, both chambers are dawdling. The House appropriates only $21million in new funding and the Senate even less--$14million. At a time when families can’t access the care they need for mentally ill families members, such under-funding is a travesty. To put these numbers in perspective, the estimate to fix the broken system is $500 million, far short of the paltry sums both chambers are setting aside.

Since the Department of Health and Human Services is failing to lead us out of this mess, the legislature should immediately adopt a plan for fixing the current mental health system and fund it appropriately.

Medicaid Relief. North Carolina is the only state in the nation that requires local governments contribute to Medicaid. This onerous requirement is hurting counties all over NC, particularly the poorer ones. The House budget included only $100 million in relief funds, but negotiations continue for a complete state take-over of Medicaid funding.

The legislature should relieve county governments of this unfair burden. Doing so will free up money here in Orange County for schools and other critical needs.

Tax Relief for the Working Poor. The House budget provides tax relief for the working poor in the form of a state Earned Income Tax Credit. The Senate, which did not include this provision in its budget and has a history of supporting tax relief for the rich, should acquiesce to the position of the House.

Rainy Day Fund. The House also sets aside $315 million in the state's rainy day fund, as opposed to the Senate's relatively paltry $150m. Rainy Day monies are used for unexpected critical needs such as natural disaster relief. Having money set aside for extraordinary situations such as these provides a cushion for the taxpayers when the need arises. Agreeing to the full $315 million is simply sound fiscal management.

Getting Buy-In from the Voters. While I concur that there are exceptions to the rule, I generally believe that expenditures for major capital improvement projects, such as new spending for University construction, should be approved by the voters. The Senate budget would borrow $1.2m for construction of new projects, particularly University-related projects, without seeking voter approval through a bond referendum. Approving a major spending campaign without voter buy-in is inappropriate.

State Energy Office. The Senate budget includes provisions that essentially eviscerate the State Energy Office. In this day and age, with global warming, high energy prices, and economic development opportunities for pursuing renewable energy, it is reprehensible that the Senate leadership would allow this effort to proceed. The House needs to step in, remove this language, and restore respectability to the budget process.

Even if the State Energy Offices needs to be reconfigured in some way (and I don’t know that it does), doing so through the budget process is not the right way to proceed. Decisions such as these should be made thoughtfully, openly, and after examining all options. The state should never, ever try to eliminate or reorganize a division such as the State Energy Office via budgetary decree.

Again, the House budget negotiators should refuse to go along with these shenanigans.

Land for Tomorrow. In a move that is disappointing to environmentalists, neither the Senate or House versions of the budget include money to fund the “Land for Tomorrow’ campaign. Land for Tomorrow is a recommendation coming out of the land conservation community that would, if adopted, set aside $1 billion for the acquisition and preservation of land across North Carolina. As our state is rapidly developing, and land prices are escalating, it’s critical to purchase environmentally sensitive tracts of land while we can afford to.

The legislature should support the “Land for Tomorrow” campaign.