NC Budget and Tax Center

State budget writers are currently grappling with the task of ironing out a final budget in the face of last year’s huge tax cuts that are hampering our ability to invest in the building blocks of a strong economy. As we entered into the new fiscal year without a revised budget, the News and Observer Editorial Board called upon lawmakers to reconsider their revenue-losing, lopsided tax plan. Here’s more from their editorial that ran over the weekend:

As North Carolina lawmakers struggle to agree on the second year of the state budget, it’s becoming clear that last year’s decision to cut taxes came too early and went too far. The state compressed its three-level personal income tax rates of 6, 7 and 7.75 percent to a flat 5.8 percent and reduced the corporate tax rate from 6.5 to 6 percent.

Had the Republican-led General Assembly held off on these cuts, North Carolina would be enjoying a budget surplus now. There would be money to increase teacher pay without cutting education elsewhere. There would be money to invest in the University of North Carolina and in the state’s neglected roads, bridges and water systems. And there would be money for modest, well-targeted tax cuts.

Instead, the legislature’s Republican leaders and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory cut taxes in a way that is creating an artificial crisis. The state doesn’t have enough money to meet the needs of its growing population and can’t find a sustainable way to lift the public schools teachers’ pay that has sunk to 48th in the nation. In North Carolina, the rich are getting richer as the stock market hits all-time highs and corporations are profiting from a rising economy, but the state has forgone the tax boom that should have come with that recovery.

….

Lawmakers should take another look at taxes and find a way to generate revenues that will meet the state’s needs and support its ambitions.

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NC Budget and Tax Center

North Carolina Senate and House budget writers met today in a rare public meeting to break the budget logjam and iron out a final budget deal for the 2015 fiscal year (FY)—which began yesterday. Because lawmakers approved a two-year budget last year as part of the biennial budgeting process, vital public services and programs are continuing but at modified levels per the Governor’s budget directive.

Leaving the budget for FY2015 in place is an option but it’s a bad option. Spending for Medicaid would be far below what’s needed under the already-approved budget due to enrollment and claims backlogs as well as the Medicaid rebase. The budget also fails to include other election-year priorities such as much-needed pay raises for state employees and teachers.

The Senate and House all put forward budget proposals that use wildly different estimates on items that should be fairly consistent across budget proposals. Before moving on to sub-committee negotiations where the full budget differences will be hashed out, budget writers’ goal for the meeting today was to seek harmony on a final budget estimate for three basic areas: 1) agency reversions; 2) the Medicaid shortfall and rebase; and 3) lottery revenues. Doing so allows budget writers to know how much money is available on the spending side. Lawmakers walked away with an agreement on estimates for agency reversions and Medicaid estimates but not on the lottery revenues. Read More

NC Budget and Tax Center

In a bizarre turn of events, the House Committee on Appropriations met today to review and vote on a new spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year. The bill passed in what appears to be along partisan lines, and it heads to the House floor tomorrow. For the most part, the new spending plan leaves in place the second year (FY2015) of the two-year budget that lawmakers already approved last year. The changes are mainly geared toward moving lottery dollars into the General Fund, boosting pay for teachers and state employees, and adjusting the education budget.

See the NC Budget and Tax Center’s statement on the budget here.

The day started with Governor McCrory and Speaker Tillis holding a joint press conference at 1pm to make an education announcement. It was revealed that House leadership planned to unveil a new spending plan that doesn’t rely on raising additional lottery dollars generated from increased advertising.  What wasn’t mentioned at the press conference is that the new plan relies on more lottery dollars to finance pay raises, those dollars just aren’t generated from relaxing the advertising rules. Those dollars just happen to be the result of revised lottery projections under current rules. In other words, the budget is still relying on a source of funding that is unstable and regressive. Read More

NC Budget and Tax Center

In an unexpected move on Monday, Governor McCrory directed state agencies to prepare for budget cuts in case lawmakers fail to iron out a budget deal before the fiscal year ends in six days. Art Pope, the Budget Director at the Office of State Budget and Management, laid out the budget guidelines in a two-page memo that orders agencies to plan for the worst-case- scenario between the Senate and House budgets. Here is a summary of the directive:

  • Agencies must take the highest cut (for the entire agency rather than on a line-item basis) that is presented in either the Senate or House budget.
  • The rule above doesn’t apply to spending associated with Teacher Assistants (TAs), which is cut in half under the Senate budget. This would mean that spending for TAs would remain at the levels in the FY2015 budget that is already on the books (see note below on the biennial budget process). This is in contrast to the Governor’s own budget, which cuts funding for TAs by nearly $20 million.
  • Filled positions that are eliminated in either the Senate or House budgets should be treated as such. Similarly, vacant positions that are eliminated in either of the proposals shall not be filled.
  • No pay raises are authorized. Nor are any expansion items in either of the proposals.

The Governor, Senate, and House already put forward their respective budgets. Now, those differences are being ironed out in what’s known as the conference process where the Senate and House leadership come together to strike a final budget deal. Because the conference process is dominated by legislators, the Governor is more or less shut out of the process—especially now because of the veto-proof majorities in both chambers. The budget memo represents a way for the Governor to pressure the legislative leadership to iron out their differences in a timely fashion. It also serves to demonstrate the worst-case scenario’s deleterious impact on the average North Carolinian.

Even if lawmakers throw their hands up in the air and leave Jones Street without striking a final budget deal Read More

NC Budget and Tax Center

It is normal in the budget process for the Governor, state Senate, and state House to each put forward budget proposals that lay out different visions for how best to educate our children, care for vulnerable populations, boost prosperity, and put North Carolina on more solid footing. The public expects those differences to be ironed out during what’s known as the “conference” process. What the public doesn’t expect is for the three budgets to use wildly different estimates on items that should be fairly consistent across budget proposals. But, that’s exactly what is going on in North Carolina.

Among the three budget proposals, there is no consensus on four key items in the budget that significantly impact the availability of dollars for other public investments, as illustrated in the table below. The budgets don’t agree on the revenue shortfall that the state is facing now in the current fiscal year. Curiously, the House anticipates a current year revenue shortfall of $429.4 million—this is $16 million lower than the Governor’s and Senate’s estimate of $445.4 million. Lawmakers must address the current revenue shortfall before putting together a budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year. This is because the shortfall hampers how much money can be carried over next year and used to pay for one-time expenses in their proposals.

Blog post, no consesus

Also, the three budgets use wide-ranging estimates for the amount of money agencies are expected to return back to the state. The House anticipates a far larger amount of money will be returned than what the Governor and Senate do. The House anticipates $407.2 million—which is higher than the Senate’s anticipated amount of $371.6 million and the Governor’s amount of $290 million. These agency reversions are made possible due to the Governor’s directive in March that ordered state agencies to curb spending as well as the second directive issued in May. The directive was issued to address the current year revenue shortfall. But, if the House’s estimates are correct, the directive is bringing in more than what is actually needed to address the revenue shortfall—effectively, making deeper cuts to programs this year to pay for one-time spending for the upcoming fiscal year.

Next, on the spending side, the budget proposals are all over the map when it comes to estimating the cost of the current year Medicaid shortfall and next fiscal year’s Medicaid rebase—which is the latest calculation of what it takes to run the Medicaid program due to enrollment growth, changes in service consumption, drug price increases, and other factors. Back in April, state officials estimated the Medicaid shortfall to be between $120 million and $140 million. Breaking from the norm, budget writers use different assumptions—on the backlog claims, for example—that determine the estimate for the shortfall. As a backup measure, two of the three budgets put money into savings account in case their estimate ends up being above projections.

Of all three budgets, the House budget puts aside $100 million to $156.7 million less than what the Governor and Senate do, respectively, for the shortfall, rebase, and reserve combined. It’s clear that the House lowballs the Medicaid Shortfall, putting aside only $25.4 million. The House also puts aside nearly $118 million in a reserve but it fails provide money for the rebase like the other budgets do so it’s essentially money that will pay for the rebase—not something that will account for underestimating the shortfall. On the other end of the stick, the Senate puts the most money aside for these items combined.

Ideally, there should be consensus on the revenue shortfall, anticipated agency reversions, and Medicaid shortfall and rebase because the professional staff for the Governor and the Legislature work together to produce these estimates. It’s unclear why legislators made the decision to use different assumptions to produce the Medicaid estimates.   When it comes to the revenue shortfall and agency reversions, it may be the case that the professional staff is using the latest revenue estimates available at the time of the release of the budget proposals—yet, there is no information online to verify this. Besides, the budgets were produced within one month of one another so the estimates should not be that far off from one another.

These differences will surely complicate the conference budget process. This is because lawmakers will not only have to work out the differences as to what they have available but they’ll also have to negotiate the rest of the differences on the spending side too.