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In case you missed it, be sure to check out today’s edition of the Fitzsimon File wherein Chris explains what’s really going on in the latest House budget proposal — part of which was unveiled today after having been written behind closed doors. As Chris notes in “A muddled start to the state budget dance”:

“Overall the parts of the budget made public so far are similar to proposals made by Governor Pat McCrory two months ago in his spending plan with the anemic status quo preserved in most agencies and programs, maintaining funding levels that after several years of deep budget cuts fail to meet the needs of a growing and still struggling state.

House leaders will tout increased funding for education but with a few notable exceptions like more funding for textbooks and restoring support for driver’s ed, most of the new education money will pay to keep services at current levels—funding enrollment increases and keeping the same number of teacher assistants in the classroom after their ranks were reduced significantly in the last few years.

It is much the same in health and human services where House leaders pay for the increased cost of Medicaid and provide some additional funding for programs that desperately need it, like the Home and Community Care Block that helps pay for Meals on Wheels and other services that allow seniors to stay in their homes.

The House budget restores a million dollar cut made to the program last year and while that’s certainly welcome news, bringing a vital program back to a previous level of funding isn’t exactly a cause for massive celebration.”

And sadly, as Chris also notes, this is probably the high point of this year’s budget process: Read More

Commentary

Thom Tillis 2The Fayetteville Observer has an interesting story today that seems to indicate that Senator Thom Tillis has brought a bit of his special brand of “that was then, this is now” governance to Washington.

According to the Observer, Tillis is speaking out vigorously against proposals to close the Air Force’s 440th Airlift Wing. While this kind of turf protection is probably to be expected from any politician, two things are rather striking about the story:

#1 – Tillis speaks out strongly in the story against federal “sequestration” cuts — i.e. the spending cuts that his fellow conservatives imposed on all kinds of essential public services and the country at-large a few years back. “Sequestration is a great threat to our readiness, to our capabilities,” the Senator said.

And wasn’t it Tillis who forever lectured us during his tenure as State House Speaker about the vast quantity of waste, fraud and abuse in government and how we needed to slash public spending to create jobs? Now, apparently, he sees the wisdom of public spending to create jobs.

#2 – Tillis went to Washington promising to help end the gridlock in Congress. But according to the story, the senator has announced that he will place a “hold” on all civilian appointments within the Department of Defense and the Department of the Air Force until he “get some answers” as to why the Air Force is closing the wing. Guess this goes to show that there is “that was then” gridlock and “this is now” gridlock.

News

Guilford County Schools chief Maurice “Mo” Green is asking the county for an additional $26 million in local funds to help fill the gaps that schools are facing thanks to years of disinvestment in public education by state lawmakers.

The News & Record reports that school leaders say they’re persistently seeing increased needs and mandates but dwindling funds.

“We’re just not doing what we know is educationally sound for children,” Guilford schools superintendent Green said Tuesday.

The $26 million would go toward mitigating some of the following scenarios Guilford schools are dealing with, according to the N&R:

  • Enrollment has increased by more than 1,200 students since 2008-09 but there are 185 fewer full-time teacher positions, district figures show.
  • The fiscal 2015 budget included almost $18 million in reductions and included a dip into the school system’s fund balance.
  • The amount of local funds allocated per student has steadily dropped over seven years from $2,416 to $2,340.
  • The school system hopes to avoid increasing class sizes once again and have enough funds to provide students and teachers with the resources they need, like textbooks.

Governor McCrory’s latest budget proposal would translate to a $4.4 million loss for Guilford County schools that would sap funds for teacher assistants and driver’s education, among other line items. Read More

Commentary

2014 End of Year Charts_tax cuts dig a holeAs the fiscal wonks at the N.C. Budget and Tax Center have repeatedly warned us would happen, the 2013 tax cuts (which went overwhelmingly to the rich and large, profitable corporations) continue to wreak havoc with the North Carolina state budget. As WRAL.com reported late last night, a new memo to lawmakers from the legislature’s Fiscal Research Division warns that the state budget shortfall is now up to $271 million for the current year.

Remember, this is happening in a time of (albeit imperfect) economic recovery around the country. For the most part, other states are gaining back the ground they lost during the Great Recession and repairing the damage inflicted upon essential state services.

Here in North Carolina, however, the opposite is true. Public spending on core functions like public schools remains mired near the bottom of the 50 states and, amazingly, many state agencies are now being asked to plan for a new round of additional budget cuts in 2015-16.

The bottom line: If things continue this way, conservative state leaders will succeed in their quest to fulfill right-wing icon Grover Norquist’s dark and disturbing vision of shrinking government down to the size at which they can “drown it in the bathtub.” Moreover, from the looks of things, they’re going to take a lot of average North Carolinians down the drain with them in the process.

News

When the former Secretary for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources sought a way to boost employee’s morale last summer, his agency ordered up several hundred commemorative coins engraved with both his and the agency’s name.

DENR commemorative coin

DENR commemorative coin

The environmental agency spent $1530 in June buying 500 coins engraved with former DENR Secretary John Skvarla’s name etched on them, in addition to the agency logo and the state seal on the back.

The coins, also referred to as challenge coins, were outdated within a few months.

Skvarla left the agency in December at Gov. Pat McCrory’s behest to lead the N.C. Commerce Department. Donald Van der Vaart, a longtime DENR employee, how heads the state environmental agency.

John Skvarla

Commerce Sec. John Skvarla (formerly DENR)

A number of the coins, but not all, were handed out to DENR employees as a way for Skvarla to recognize exemplary performance, said Drew Elliot, a spokesman for the agency.

Elliot said he did not know how many of the coins remained. N.C. Policy Watch has requested, but not yet received, a copy of a spreadsheet detailing how the coins were distributed under Skvarla’s leadership.

The $1,530 purchase of the coins this June comes as the agency has had to trim many of its programs and lay off environmental regulators in response to deep budget cuts, including 225 jobs lost between 2011 and 2014, according to this February 2014 news article. Some environmental groups say the cuts have left the state unable to protect its natural resources and prevent future disasters like last year’s toxic coal ash spill in the Dan River.

Challenge coins like the ones ordered by DENR are a well-known tradition in the nation’s military branches, as explained in this Mental Floss article. The coins are sometimes handed out by secret handshakes, as they were during a 2011 visit to Afghanistan by then Defense Secretary Robert Gates who passed them out to servicemen and servicewomen.

Probably one of the most popular uses of the coins in the military is to settle up bar tabs.

Read More