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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

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McCrory budgetGov. Pat McCrory held a formal signing ceremony to herald his approval of the new FY 2015 state budget this morning. The signing took place around a fancy old desk that was set up in front of some red carpeted stairs in the Governor’s mansion with a group of legislators and administration officials standing in the background. It was, in other words, a moment of gubernatorial pomp and circumstance — a moment in which the Governor was positioned to rise above the political fray and strike a statesmanlike pose.

Unfortunately, the Guv couldn’t help himself and in the middle of the ceremony — without any prompting from the media — decided to take cheap shots at his opponents. Read More

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Veteran Raleigh journalist and political observer Steve Ford is out with a new and convincing look at the new state budget (i.e. the one the Governor said he’d sign before he actually got around to the business of reading it). It’s a full-length read but, as is always the case with Steve’s takes, definitely worth a few minutes of your time. Check it out below:

Revenue-starved budget rattles and rolls
By Steve Ford

The debate is familiar: State government is too big. No, it’s too small.

People in the too-big camp typically think government – the state agencies and institutions that North Carolinians support with their taxes — is too expensive. That it tries to do too much in the way of regulating business. That it saps individual initiative with aid to folks who should be working harder to help themselves and makes everyone else pay.

Across the philosophical fence are those who view robust regulation, robust social programs – including public education – and a fair tax structure generating a steady stream of revenues as cornerstones of a government that properly serves the public interest.

In the real world, of course the divide is not always so stark. But the contentious process by which the N.C. General Assembly has settled upon a new state budget highlights the opposing viewpoints. The budget now before Gov. Pat McCrory, who has said he will sign it into law, is one that could be accompanied by the slogan, “We did the least we thought we could get away with.”

Even though it calls for raising and spending $21.1 billion during the current July-to-June fiscal year, this is another small-government budget, relatively speaking — in keeping with the preferences of the conservatives who control the House and Senate and their Republican ally in the governor’s office. Read More

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TeachersHeadline-hunting legislative leaders got what they wanted and needed (for now) with yesterday’s latest budget announcement. They wanted the story to be first and foremost about big teacher raises and it appears pretty clear that they got that. Media outlets around the state are reporting that central component of the proposed budget agreement this morning and millions of North Carolinians are waking up to the news — even if it’s frequently tinged with skepticism.

The problem with this story, of course is that, by all indications, the pay raise is being purchased at an enormous price — i.e. big cuts everywhere else –including education — along with tiny and inadequate pay raises for other public employees (including education personnel).

In short, though many details remain to be seen, the central and disastrous driving force behind this year’s budget — last year’s regressive and backward-looking tax cuts remain in full force. As budget analyst Tazra Mitchell wrote here yesterday:

There are better choices available that will put North Carolina on a stronger path to recovery for children, families, and communities across the Tarheel state. For starters, lawmakers need to face the reality that we can’t afford further tax cuts and stop the income tax cuts that are scheduled to go into effect next January. Doing so will save approximately $100 million in the current fiscal year and $300 million in the 2015 calendar year. These revenues would go a long way towards reversing the most damaging cuts that were enacted in the aftermath of the Great Recession. That’s a short-term fix.  A longer term fix requires restoring the progressive personal income tax structure so that revenues are stable and more adequate.

The only saving grace of the budget is this: the message it sends to progressives. As dreadful as the budget is — both for the near and long term — it does serve to remind progressives of the power of advocacy. Read More

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SmokeIn an allusion to the signal that’s seen in the Vatican when the leaders of the Catholic Church elect a new Pope, at least one news media report this morning is talking about “white smoke” being visible on Jones Street. The story accompanying the headline, of course, is that leaders of the North Carolina General Assembly signaled over the weekend that they have agreement on the framework of a state budget deal. Assuming it really comes to fruition, the agreement comes a full month into the 2015 fiscal year.

A closer look at those puffs of smoke, however, reveals them to bear a notably blue tinge — that is, the kind one typically see with an engine that’s leaking oil and about to blow. As Alexandra Sirota details in the post immediately below and Chris Fitzsimon highlights in this morning’s “Monday Numbers,” one important impetus for the agreement would appear to be the latest calculations of the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division staff that the income tax cuts enacted last year are harming state budget revenues even more than had been officially forecast – i.e. more along the lines of what the Budget and Tax Center has been predicting all along.

So, keep in mind a couple of things this week as lawmakers and the Governor are falling all over themselves to issue statements of  self-congratulations:

1) Notwithstanding their rosy claims, the engine driving state government — the tax system — remains cracked and badly in need of an overhaul.

2) The current proposed solution — rolling up the window and ignoring the smoke — will provide only a temporary solution at best.