Commentary, public health

N.C. House budget underestimates funding needed for Medicaid

Budgeting for anticipated expenses is a key element to fiscal responsibility, just as ensuring that the tax code is adequate to meet those expenses and the needs in communities.

Unfortunately, the N.C. House of Representatives’ budget has failed to pursue this approach in the area of providing quality, affordable health insurance to low-income North Carolinians with disabilities, the elderly, children, and pregnant women.

The budget proposal they approved earlier this month introduced a Medicaid rebase nearly $40 million lower than the Governor’s budget. It also includes a management flexibility cut of $15 million that may result in the need for reductions in administrative oversight at a critical moment in the transformation of the Medicaid system in our state. Last year, the General Assembly underfunded the rebase by nearly $28 million.

While rebase adjustments are only cost estimates based on anticipated changes to enrollment, utilization, costs, rates, and more, there is no advantage to underestimating these costs and, in fact, it compromises the budget process altogether by failing to show the true expenses the state should be meeting.

In years past, inadequate rebase allocations have meant that the General Assembly has to come up with funds at a later date in order to make up the difference, leading to challenges when balancing the state’s budget with available revenue. This is because Medicaid is an entitlement program, meaning that people who apply and meet eligibility criteria are entitled to receive services.

November will also mark the start of North Carolina’s shift to Medicaid managed care, which will involve paying private insurance companies on a per member per month basis to manage the physical and behavioral health needs of those enrollees. While the thinking is that Medicaid transformation will create savings for the state, this expected net savings will take place over time, and it would therefore be prudent for state lawmakers to carefully allocate funds to this area.

Of course, there are also limitations in the state budget thanks to tax cuts introduced since 2013, which have severely limited North Carolina’s ability to generate revenue and invest in our state.

This year alone, the tax cuts that took effect in January resulted in $900 million loss to expected revenue for the upcoming fiscal year, and a current proposal in the Senate would be another blow to the state’s dwindling revenue, worsening the structural deficit.

Suzy Khachaturyan is a Policy Analyst at the Budget and Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center.

Commentary, Education

News & Observer “fact check” on senator’s school voucher claim tells only half the story

A recent News and Observer “fact check” weighed into the North Carolina Senate’s debate over a bill that would expand eligibility for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship voucher program. The article rates Sen. Natasha Marcus’s claim that there’s no wait list for Opportunity Scholarship vouchers as “Half True” because she failed to tell “the full story.” Yet in going after Sen. Marcus’s statement, the N&O also fails to tell the whole story. By their own measure, the “fact check” itself is just “Half True.”

The bill that Sen. Marcus was debating, SB 609, would make two major changes to expand eligibility for the Opportunity Scholarship voucher.

First, the bill (which has passed the Senate and now awaits action in the House) would remove the cap on the number of new vouchers that could be provided to students in grades K-1. Currently, only 40 percent of new scholarships may be awarded to students in grades K-1.

Second, the bill would allow more middle-income families to be eligible for vouchers. Currently, families are eligible if their income is within 246.05 percent of the federal poverty level. If SB 609 becomes law, families with incomes within 277.5 percent of the federal poverty level would be eligible. That would raise the eligibility from $63,359 to $71,457 for a family of four.

Senators are pushing these changes because in every year of its existence, funding for Opportunity Scholarship vouchers has exceeded awards of Opportunity Scholarships. Dollars have outstripped demand.

Given the program’s consistent over-funding, it’s totally reasonable that Marcus concluded, “Every student who’s eligible right now has received a voucher…So, there’s no wait list.” However, as the N&O points out, there were 520 income-eligible students in FY 18-19 who did not receive a voucher due to the cap on awards to students in grades K-1. These students are not placed on a wait list, so Marcus is correct – there is no wait list. And even if they were given full-value vouchers, the program would still be over-funded for FY 18-19. But the N&O decided to call her technically true statement “Half True” for “not telling the full story.”

Yet the N&O also fails to tell the whole story.

First, the N&O fails to mention why the cap on K-1 students is important. The cap was put into place because many of the vouchers awarded to students in those grades end up going to children who would have gone to private school anyway. Unlike students in grades 2-12, voucher applicants entering kindergarten or first grade are not required to have previously been enrolled in a public school. The creators of the Opportunity Scholarship voucher put the cap in place – originally set at 35 percent – to limit the amount of funding that the program would drain from public schools. After all, the state fails to save any money by giving someone a voucher to do something they were planning to do already.

The proof is in the numbers. Read more

NC Budget and Tax Center

April labor market data confirm NC job growth is still unexceptional

The data released last Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics affirms the message delivered on the Senate floor last week by some lawmakers. North Carolina has not experienced a surge in employment nor is the state’s level of employment in a better position compared to historic levels. The tax cut experiment since 2013 has failed and due to the loss in the ability to fund foundational investments to a strong economy—health and well-being of families, education of children and the workforce, infrastructure in communities and regional connections—it is likely to hold us back from reaching our full economic potential

As noted on the Budget & Tax Center’s labor market update for April 2019, year over year job growth was just 1.6 percent, below the national average of 1.8 percent. North Carolina’s employment growth remains in line with regional neighbors and has not achieved notable acceleration from tax cuts.

The state’s unemployment rate has remained steady over the past year, hovering around four percent. Unlike the recent trend nationally, North Carolina’s labor force continues to grow albeit slower than the working age population. This is likely due to the reality that there are still too few jobs for those who are looking for work.

North Carolina’s employment to population levels remain below historic levels and below the national average as does our labor force participation rate. North Carolina needs to create 16,000 jobs each month to get back to pre-Recession employment levels in three years.  While clearly getting back to that level sooner should be the goal, the month over month change in employed persons has not hit that 16,000 threshold since January 2018.

 

Commentary, News

Trump’s latest immigration proposal: Short on details and endorsements

President Trump revealed a new immigration proposal on Thursday afternoon. In a speech in the White House Rose Garden, Trump announced his plan to boost “merit-based” immigration, which he says would “transform America’s immigration system into the pride of our nation and the envy of the modern world.”

His plan focused mostly on legal immigration, with no provisions for undocumented migrants already in the country or Dreamers.

Currently, our immigration system favors migrants with family already in the U.S. and allots a minority of visas – around 12 percent – to immigrants with higher education or special workforce skills. Trump’s proposal would increase that 12 percent to 57 percent and decrease family visas from 66 to 33 percent. Applicants would be required to speak English and pass a civics test. Preference would be given to younger, financially stable applicants entering the country with an existing offer of employment.

Under Trump’s proposal, family-based migration would be limited to the nuclear family, so that spouses and minor children would still be given high priority. Extended family members, however, would not qualify.

Trump also addressed asylum, saying that “legitimate” asylum-seekers would “quickly be admitted,” but those with “frivolous” claims would “promptly be returned home.” The president did not expand on what might constitute a “frivolous” claim for asylum. The percentage of total visas provided for humanitarian purposes would decrease from 22 to 10 percent.

“Like Canada and so many other modern countries, we will create an easy-to-navigate points-based system,” said Trump. Unlike Canada, however, Trump made no commitment to resettle thousands of refugees.

The plan is unlikely to garner bipartisan support. Democrats probably will not support any immigration plan that does not discuss young people covered under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, but White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says Trump’s plan does not include DACA for a reason. Read more

Commentary

Weekend humor from Celia Rivenbark: Why is it OK to hate teachers?

I was reading the comments attached to a news story about public school teachers staging a rally in my home state of North Carolina (“Come for the No. 34 ranking in nationwide teacher pay; stay for the barbecue”) when it hit me: People really are idiots.

Not all of y’all. But I gotta give a shout-out to the laboratory-quality dumbbell who wrote—and I am not making this up—“Teachers is paid enough. If they want more money, they should have went to school for something else.”

Yes. And maybe he should’ve went to school a little longer. Or at all.

You know those bumper stickers that say: “If you can read this, thank a teacher”? Yeah, I haven’t seen one in ages either.

Of all the groups I would’ve considered safe from snark and, worse, vilification, it would be teachers.

Admittedly, I have a dog in this fight. As the daughter of a public school teacher and the mother of a newly minted one who has signed on to work in a high-poverty school for the next two years, yeah, I have to say this shift in the national conversation is a head-scratcher at best and a head-in-the-oven at worst.

I don’t get this even a little bit. If “Should’ve went” was the lone voice, I wouldn’t pay much attention. It’s like how people ignore the guy in every small town who walks around in chaps with a skunk on a leash but no! It’s now OK, even trendy, to hate on teachers.

TEACHERS.

The comments piled on, taking up “Should’ve went”’s rallying cry.

“Must be nice to have summers off.”

“Why do they complain? They stop work at 3 o’clock. A real job would kill them.”

“They don’t teach anymore; they’re just glorified babysitters.”

Anyone who knows a teacher knows the high horse manure content of those statements.

I know that lately, as a nation, we’ve gotten cranky. Politics has us divided, angry, frustrated. I used to be a cheerful sort, ask anyone. OK, maybe not the U-scan attendant at the grocery store BECAUSE IT NEVER WORKS but anyone else.

But our general American dyspepsia (ask a teacher, I mean, if you can pull her off the bar stool at 3:30 every afternoon. Oh, wait. I meant find him at his SECOND JOB) has now reached into areas that used to be undisputed, sacrosanct even.

We suck.

There’s just no gentler way to describe the national slide into hatefulness focused, astonishingly, on what could arguably be called “the least of these.” Teachers aren’t rich, they aren’t famous. But they are, to borrow a term from social media, true influencers. It took some doing but raging against teachers is a thing now. A lowdown, dirty, deplorable thing.

We hear a lot about saving the babies. Until they show up at kindergarten with 40 others and one valiant teacher who just spent half her first paycheck to make the classroom functional. Some of you don’t care about that at all. Fortunately, teachers do.

Celia Rivenbark

Celia Rivenbark is a New York Times-bestselling author and columnist. Visit www.celiarivenbark.com.