A modest proposal: Use the state surplus to help meet school construction needs

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In some ways, February seems like a lifetime ago. But in those early days of the 2019 legislative session, there was broad, bipartisan consensus that it was finally time for state leaders to do something about school districts’ $8 billion-plus of outstanding school capital needs. Senate leaders wanted to funnel more money into their pay-as-you-go plan known as the State Capital and Infrastructure Fund (SCIF) while House leaders coalesced around a $1.9 billion bond – $1.5 billion of which would support public schools.

A mere six months later, legislative leaders have failed in their attempts to provide any new support for school buildings. Both chambers have given up on trying to pass their standalone bills related to school construction, and are apparently unwilling to engage on a budget bill that could generate the necessary support from either the Governor or three-fifths of legislators.

However, fate has provided legislative leaders with a second bite at the apple in the form of nearly $900 million in one-time money from revenue coming in above projections. Currently, Speaker Moore and Senator Berger appear intent on sending $663 million of the surplus to North Carolinians in the form of $125 checks.

Berger and Moore should re-think that plan and consider using that money for a cause they both claim to care about: our state’s dilapidated public schools. After all, sending the $663 million to schools would actually go further for schools than either the Senate’s SCIF plan or the House’s bond proposal.

Both the SCIF and the bond would parse out school capital payments over about a ten-year  time horizon. Additionally, both plans would force future reductions in state expenditures that would partially off-set the benefits of the added school construction spending. Taking these factors into account, my colleague Patrick McHugh and I showed that the SCIF would provide schools with the equivalent of an immediate appropriation of $563 million while the bond would provide schools with the equivalent of $605 million.

Here’s an update to our analysis: $663 million is bigger than $563 million or $605 million. If legislative leaders still think school construction is a good use of state funds, they would be better off sending $663 million of the surplus to schools, helping them alleviate their massive capital needs. Sending these dollars to schools would help solve a real social problem, inject more money into our state’s economy, and the plan has a much better chance of becoming law than the Republicans’ rebate plan.

If legislative leaders reject this proposal, it’s important to find out what changed. Six months ago, both Senate and House leaders agreed that spending state revenue on school construction was more important than sending $125 checks to North Carolinians. Now they have an opportunity to show that their concern for the state of our schools was sincere and not simple pandering to make up for decades of neglect.

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