Our short session certainly kicked into high gear in a hurry. The budget passed last week and has been submitted to the governor. Unfortunately, it was not put through the normal paces of our legislative process, and, not surprisingly, that resulted in a bad budget that doesn’t make wise use of your money and doesn’t move North Carolina forward. Here’s why.
A Note on the Process
The budget is first proposed by the Governor. Then, either the House or Senate (depending on the year) file their budget bill. That bill is then sent to the budget subcommittees - one for each major area of the budget - where it is reviewed and amendments are proposed. Then, it is reviewed by the full budget committee where more amendments can be offered. Finally, it is presented to the full body on the floor where additional amendments are offered and a vote is taken.
Once the budget has passed through that process in either the House or the Senate, it is sent over to the other chamber where the process is repeated. That usually means that the two chambers pass somewhat different versions of the bill that have to be reconciled in a Conference Committee.
That process may seem cumbersome, but it’s meant to be. We are a deliberative body, charged with spending $24 billion of taxpayers’ money–your money. We have an obligation to make sure we do that in a thoughtful, careful, prudent way.
Unfortunately, this year, the leadership here in Raleigh decided to just skip straight to the end. They took a different bill that had gone through that process last year, and used that bill’s Conference Committee to draft a budget. The bill that went through the House and Senate as a Department of Insurance reporting requirement, emerged from the Conference Committee as our 2018 budget. The end result was that there was no opportunity for anyone in either the House or the Senate to propose amendments to the budget. What we saw was what we got.
And that bad process produced a bad budget.
Our state is facing some very serious challenges–a public education system straining to keep up with enrollment growth, infrastructure in dire need of maintenance and upgrades, and an opioid epidemic that is taking lives and devastating families all across our state. Those problems are complex, and they require strategic, multi-pronged solutions. Unfortunately, this budget does just the opposite.
The Opioid Crisis
The budget included just $40,000 in one time funds for 4 specific counties to purchase Naloxone (commonly known as Narcan). None of those counties were among the top 10, or event top 20 for Drug Overdose Mortality Rates in the state.
Unfortunately, here in the mountains, we have some of the highest rates of opiate related overdoses, with 6 western counties among the top 10 highest overdose mortality rates in the state. And yet the budget doesn’t restore the $2 million cut from our local state-funded treatment center. And it doesn’t give our first responders funds to buy Naloxone. And it doesn’t restore the $25 million cut from the Department of Justice last year.
This is a crisis that requires a multi-pronged and strategic solution. We must make sure that we are limiting the prescription supply, giving law enforcement the resources they need to keep drug dealers out of our communities, and making treatment options as accessible and affordable as we can for every North Carolinian who needs it.
Here again, we have a complex problem that needs a visionary solution. Our failure to bring internet access to every home in the state is putting our rural businesses at a disadvantage and putting our kids behind by increasing the homework gap.
The budget creates a new $10 million fund called the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology or “GREAT” grant program to provide small grants to designated counties to run “last mile” internet connections. While those counties need that help, the GREAT program just doesn’t get it done and it fails to recognize the same need in our state’s other counties. Gov. Cooper’s proposed budget not only almost doubles the investment in broadband expansion, but also included almost $3 million for homework hotspots that students without access could take home to get online to do the research and homework they need.
We have the power and the resources to build that internet infrastructure. But we aren’t going to do it by creating a catchy name for a grant program that only serves ⅕ of our counties, and only gives them the smallest portion of what they need.
Perhaps the most egregious example of this budget’s failure to think comprehensively, is the money it included for school supplies. We know that teachers across the state are pouring their own money into their classrooms to make sure that their kids have the tools they need to succeed. But this budget only included grants to specific non-profits for them to provide school supplies to specific schools in specific counties. That's wrong. I could not in good conscience support a budget that earmarks $200,000 to buy school supplies for specific schools in Mecklenburg County, but doesn’t give a single penny to the teachers at Candler Elementary or Erwin Middle or to the other 99 counties in this state.
Our state deserves a budget that looks into the future and sets lofty goals. Let’s pledge to have every North Carolina household connected to high-speed internet by 2030. Let’s pledge to reduce overdose deaths in our state by 50% next year. Let’s pledge to equip every North Carolina classroom with the supplies, textbooks, and personnel they need to succeed. And then lets sit down and develop a plan for how we achieve these goals. That’s how we move North Carolina forward.