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In case you missed it, Tazra Mitchell of the N.C. Budget and Tax Center had a great letter to the editor in Raleigh’s News & Observer over the weekend that exposed the silly story state lawmakers have concocted in order to create the illusion that everything is now fine with state budget. As Tazra explains:

“Regarding the Feb. 13 news article “ NC forecasts budget surplus for fiscal year that begins July 1”: State lawmakers are making a major change to the budget process in an attempt to mask the fallout of their recent decisions. The change also allows them to claim a “surplus” that merely reflects revenue growth – and revenue growth that’s far under the long-term average.

For many decades, the starting point for the budgeting process has been the amount of resources necessary to maintain the current quality of public systems that Tar Heels expect. Starting with this “current services budget” is standard practice for virtually all responsible governing bodies across the country.

The governor and legislature now are, crudely, redrawing the starting point for this year’s budget. In fact, the funding level they declared to be “base budget” for the upcoming year is roughly $213 million less than the budget for the current year. When and if they manage to cover the additional costs of things like more students in schools, inflationary increases in health care services or cost-of-living raises for teachers and highway patrol officers, they will claim credit for their acts of generosity.

Lawmakers lowered the bar, and when they clear it, they’ll declare themselves the winners. But budget gimmicks will not hide bigger class sizes or higher tuition rates. North Carolinians have seen too much to be fooled into thinking there is any kind of “surplus” afoot.”

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As illustrated by Thomas Mills with Politics NC, the state budget will inevitably reflect the ideological interests and goals of the men in charge of our state legislature rather than the actual needs of real people. He writes of their personal motives:

The GOP is only unified about two things. First, they want to make sure that the rich and big corporations don’t have to help close the budget hole that the legislature gave us. That’s a burden for the rest of us to shoulder. Second, they want to give teachers pay raises. And that’s to protect their seats by appearing to support public education. Not many people are buying it but that’s their story and they’re sticking to it. 

Having connections with big money and corporate interests, our legislative leaders are not working to serve the people but to serve big business and the “free market.” Mills further states:

The competing budgets are a reflection of the men who run the legislature. The senate budget is an ideological document hell bent on protecting the free market principals and social Darwinism that Phil Berger has so vigorously embraced. He’s a Calvin Coolidge Republican who believes in Coolidge’s famous quote, “The business of America is business.” What Coolidge Republicans like to forget is that his policies led to the Wall Street crash of 1929 that, in turn, led to the Great Depression.

Will the new budget help us or harm us? Our leaders are not interested: their main concern is upholding the economic privilege of North Carolina’s wealthiest, even if that means compromising the needs of the majority of its citizens.

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Here are the quick courts-related highlights from the final budget proposed by the General Assembly, likely to be voted upon and sent to the governor this week:

  • Cuts funding to the Administrative Office of the Courts by $4 million in each fiscal year (203-14 and 2014-15).
  • Restores funding for 22 magistrates, and calls for a study of how magistrates are allocated throughout the state.
  • Provides no funding for Drug Treatment Courts. The governor had proposed $3.6 million in funding for these courts, which he highlighted when he announced his budget.
  • Lets Rep. Justin Burr have his way, changing the configuration of district courts in the eastern part of the state so that his county, Stanly County, is a stand-alone district.
  • Does not cut funding for court reporters, but calls for a study on their use and compensation statewide.
  • Does not transfer attorneys general to the agencies that they represent, but calls for a study and recommendations by the 2014 regular session.
  • Cuts funding for the Prisoner Legal Services contract by $890,000. The governor had called for a $231,000 reduction.
  • Reclassifies certain low-level offenses to misdemeanors punishable by fines, as opposed to jail time, resulting in a projected $2 million savings from not having to provide counsel for those so charged. (Under the Sixth Amendment and U.S. Supreme Court case law, only defendants charged with offenses punishable by jail time have a right to counsel). This means that those charged with such offenses can now be convicted — and have a criminal record with all the attendant collateral consequences — without counsel to represent them.

No new funding is provided for the courts, which continue to be understaffed, overworked and woefully behind the times in terms of technology.