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We’ve reported on several of the unwise cuts imposed or forced by state lawmakers and Governor McCrory in the past year — from cuts in child care to the courts to basic school supplies. This morning’s lead editorial in Raleigh’s News & Observer highlights another ill-conceived and likely dangerous decision: the cuts to driver’s education in our schools. As the editorial notes:

“It is one of the most foolish budget-cutting tricks pulled by the Republican-led General Assembly. To help balance the state budget – a budget in serious trouble, thanks to shortfalls in revenue from taxes – GOP lawmakers intend to cut state funds for driver’s education.

The responsibility to pay for the lessons will fall to local school districts, which can ill-afford to make up the difference. Some will have to charge each student $65 for the program, which won’t cover the cost, so districts will have to dig into their budgets for the money. And this for a program required by the state. Districts must offer driver’s ed to every student in public, private and home schools. In Wake County, about 12,000 students a year go through the program.

Offering the training is a no-brainer. Statistics show a higher incidence of fatal collisions for those who don’t take driver’s education. That alone should have made driver’s ed hands-off for lawmakers. But paying for driver’s education also provides a good safety service for families and a reasonable hope that better-educated drivers are better drivers and more familiar with the rules of the North Carolina road….

The problem is that with excessive tax cuts, Republicans have painted themselves into a corner. If they stand by their cuts, they’re going to not just have to defend what they’ve already done, they’ll have to find new places to save money, and those places are most likely to be in public education….

So the tax-cutters in the legislature will create tax-raisers in the counties. The people of North Carolina are smart enough to know a shell game when they see one.

School systems and parents will pay for drivers ed one way or the other. But by passing the funding obligation downward, the state fosters a system that will help fewer young drivers.”

Read the entire editorial by clicking here.

NC Budget and Tax Center

An insightful interactive map created by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows the extraordinary growth in imprisonment rates nationwide. For North Carolina, the number of individuals under state or federal correctional authority nearly tripled from 1978 to 2013, increasing to 356 from 214 individuals per 100,000 residents over this time period. This growth in the state’s imprisonment rate is accompanied by increased state corrections spending – rising from $538 million in 1978 up to $1.7 billion in 2013 when adjusted for inflation.

Growth in the state’s imprisonment population has been costly for North Carolina and nationally. More and more state dollars for state corrections spending has contributed to fewer dollars available for public schools and other public investments that serve as the foundation of economic growth. In 2011, state lawmakers passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, which aims to manage the state’s prison population growth by creating better outcomes for offenders and, in turn, reduce recidivism. However, the state’s ongoing revenue crisis resulting from costly tax cuts and continued budget cuts limit opportunities for proven, cost-effective initiatives, such as drug treatment courts.

What is clear is that state corrections operations in North Carolina consume a significant amount of resources, and individuals, at the expense of other important public investments.

News

The Associated Press published this disturbing report this afternoon about the release of an autopsy of a mentally ill prison inmate who died of thirst.

Anthony Michael Kerr, 53, died when he was found unresponsive in March while being transported from a state prison in Taylorsville to Central Prison in Raleigh.

The article (by AP’s Michael Biesecker) also reported a state pathologist couldn’t determine if the death was of natural, accidental, or homicidal causes. The pathologist wasn’t given information by prison staff about when Kerr last ate or was given something to drink.
From the AP article.

In the North Carolina Medical Examiner’s Office report, pathologist Dr. Lauren Scott says a senior prison official allowed a “witnessed review” of an internal review into Kerr’s death, though the medical examiner’s office was not permitted to keep a copy. Scott wrote that the report left unanswered key details about the circumstances leading to Kerr’s death, including when the inmate last had access to food and water.

Because of the lack of information, the pathologist wrote that she was unable to make a determination about whether Kerr’s death should be classified as natural, accidental or homicide.

“Mr. Kerr’s psychiatric history was significant for schizoaffective disorder for which he was not receiving any treatment at the time of his death,” Scott wrote. “It was not possible to make any firm conclusions regarding the inmate’s nutrition and fluid intake, and whether or not his mental health and/or external factors played a role in the dehydration.”

Scott noted abrasions on Kerr’s forearms were “consistent with restraint devices.”

You can read the entire article here.

Falling Behind in NC, NC Budget and Tax Center

Governor McCrory signed a final budget into law for the current 2015 fiscal year, which runs from July 2014 through June 2015, this morning. The $21.1 billion budget includes new spending initiatives – largely pay raises for teachers and state employees – but fails to include additional revenue to sustain this spending in the long-term. Contrary to fueling North Carolina’s economic comeback, as Governor McCrory claims, the final budget continues to fund core public services at diminished levels, well below pre-recession levels, and compromises the ability of the state to get ahead and prepare for the future.  Moreover, it puts North Carolina on a fiscally irresponsible path that will continue to create budget challenges in the years ahead, largely as a result of the tax plan that was little debated and discussed in the final budget.

North Carolina faces a revenue challenge, and actions taken within the final budget make this reality clear. The final budget signed by the Governor spends every available dollar and uses dollars from last year’s budget as a result of the Governor requiring agencies to cut their respective budgets. No funding is available to build up the state’s Savings Reserve fund, which is meant to position the state to weather a future economic downturn. Furthermore, the budget relies on one-time funding sources that, once depleted, cannot be replenished with such low revenue and shifts funding for core public investments such as K-12 education to lottery receipts and early childhood programming to federal block grants.

Such budget decisions are driven largely by the tax plan the governor signed into law last year, which significantly reduces revenue available for public investments. Revised analysis by the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division estimates that the income tax rate cuts in the plan will cost at least $200 million more annually than initially expected – more than $1 billion less in annual revenue once the plan is fully implemented. The Governor and state policymakers failed to account for this reality in the final budget, which means that, absent new revenue, more budget cuts to core public services are likely to occur in future years as the tax plan continues to be implemented. Another round of tax cuts is set to occur in January 2015.

Under the final budget signed by the Governor, state spending remains 6.6 percent below pre-recession levels (see chart below). Read More

NC Budget and Tax Center

Gov. McCrory’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2015 and respective budgets by the House and Senate include significant cost savings from closing and downsizing various correctional facilities. Savings from these changes total around $14.2 million in both the House and Senate budgets and $14.9 million in the Governor’s budget.

Savings generated from these changes could have been used to promote safer communities across the state.  However, lawmakers went down a different path. For instance, Gov. McCrory advocated for state funding for drug treatment courts to be included in the state’s current fiscal year budget. These courts cost a fraction of the nearly $28,000 it cost to keep individuals in prison. However, the final budget passed last year by state policymakers did not include funding for drug treatment courts.

All three budget proposals for fiscal year 2015 – which begin July 1, 2014 – fail to include funding for drug treatment courts. The House and Senate budgets, however, go further and cut funding for programs that promote fair and equitable access to the justice system and safe communities across the state.

Funding cuts to Justice and Public Safety in the House and Senate budgets include:

  • Elimination of the Access to Civil Justice Fund, which supports the representation of poor North Carolinians in civil cases.
  • Reduction of administration funding for Indigent Defense Services, which in part oversees the provision of legal representation to indigent defendants and others entitled to counsel under North Carolina law.
  • Reduction of administration funding for Administration of the Courts

Due to tax changes enacted last year, state policymakers are constrained in major ways. This is effectively a self-imposed budget challenge. Nevertheless, as demonstrated with choices made within the Justice and Public Safety area of the budget, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Budget writers found revenue by making significant changes to the operations of various correctional facilities as well as by cutting state funding for programs that work to enhance the efficacy of the state’s justice system. These state funding cuts would limit service providers’ ability to assist individuals and families in need to legal representation.

What is clear from all three budgets is that state lawmakers are continuing down a dangerous path of more state funding cuts rather than reinvestment as the state recovers from the Great Recession. One can only hope that as budget writers work to negotiate a final budget for the upcoming 2015 fiscal year, state funding is restored for these programs that were put on the chopping block in the House and Senate budgets.