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NC budget still falls short for residents
GUEST EDITORIAL

NC budget still falls short for residents

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More than two years after a standoff between Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican lawmakers left North Carolina without a comprehensive spending plan, it appears North Carolina will finally get a budget — no matter how bad that budget may be.

North Carolina is the only state in the country that has yet to enact a budget for the fiscal year that began more than four months ago. On Monday, lawmakers released a budget proposal that they say contains elements of “compromise” between Democrats and Republicans. Less than 24 hours later, Cooper announced he’d sign it, saying that “on balance, the good outweighs the bad.”

Yes, it is a budget (at last!). But that doesn’t make it a victory.

This budget proposal isn’t much better than the one Cooper vetoed two years ago. It doesn’t contain high enough raises for teachers and other state employees, nor does it expand Medicaid for the more than 500,000 North Carolinians who lack access to affordable, quality health care.

In fact, this so-called compromise budget is hardly a compromise at all.

For starters, most educators and state employees, who haven’t seen a pay increase since the last budget was passed in 2017, will get a tepid 5% raise over the next two years. Though it also includes teacher bonuses and salary supplements for teachers in low-wealth counties, it’s hardly enough to keep up with inflation, and it’s unlikely to alleviate the critical teacher shortage our state is facing. The same goes for non-certified public school employees, including cafeteria workers and custodians, who will make $15 an hour after two years. While that may be an improvement, it’s certainly not a solution.

And rather than acknowledge their obligation to fund education in accordance with the Leandro case, Republicans are apparently choosing to take advantage of the state’s multibillion-dollar surplus by spending on tax cuts. In addition to reducing the personal income tax rate, the budget will completely phase out the corporate income tax after 2029. That might benefit corporations, but it won’t help North Carolinians. Republicans also managed to squeeze in the contents of two bills that Cooper had already vetoed this year, including a provision to limit the governor’s powers during an emergency.

But despite what he called “missed opportunities and misguided policies,” Cooper decided the costs of another veto were too high — and we don’t blame him. Budget battles have consequences, and North Carolinians — especially teachers — have felt those consequences over the past couple of years. While we might have preferred for him to go back to the table and negotiate for better educator raises and Medicaid expansion, Republicans probably wouldn’t have budged. Cooper’s veto didn’t give us a better budget last time, and it’s unlikely to do so now.

There are some positives in the budget, including broadband expansion, water and sewer upgrades, child tax credit increases and higher education funding. That includes expanding the NC Promise program, which guarantees $500-per-semester tuition for in-state students at several universities.

“I will sign this budget because of its critical and necessary investments and I will fight to fix its mistakes,” Cooper said in his announcement Tuesday.

Unlike Cooper, we’re not certain the positives outweigh the negatives, but this is probably the best deal North Carolina is going to get right now. That’s not Cooper’s fault; it’s the fault of Republicans who have repeatedly been unwilling to craft a bipartisan budget that reflects much more than their own priorities. Lawmakers could address the challenges our state faces — we have the money, after all — but they won’t, at least not in meaningful ways.

Voters should take note of that. This budget may be better than nothing, but it’s still a long way from good. While the budget process may be mercifully nearing its end, Cooper and Democratic lawmakers should keep fighting to improve the many areas in which it falls short.

This editorial printed in the Charlotte Observer on Nov. 16.

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