Disturbing choices

Legislative budget process is backwards.

By Chris Fitzsimon

[7.02.04] — State lawmakers are getting close to finishing the state budget for the fiscal year that started July 1, with House and Senate leaders saying they have agreed to compromises on most of the differences between the budgets passed by each chamber.

As expected, the news is mixed for human services, with fewer cuts being made in programs than the House originally proposed, but not much money spent to restore deep cuts made to vital programs in last few years.

Legislative leaders continue to get generally good reviews for their budget efforts this year from editorial writers and advocates who closely follow the system.

Two things are generally missing from those evaluations.

Lawmakers and Gov. Mike Easley decided before the legislative session began that there would be no tax increase of any kind this year. That meant even tougher choices than usual once the budget writers began their work.

Instead of assessing the needs of the state and then finding the money to meet them, they decided first not to raise any money, and then allocated the money available as far as it would go.

That backward approach resulted in a much greater tension than usual between human service programs — mental health, children’ s health insurance and day care subsidies — and legislators pet projects requested by their constituents and supporters.

Adjustments made this year to the budget, which spends roughly $15.8 billion of state taxpayers money, take almost 200 pages of text and another 75 pages of numbers to explain.

An easy way to understand how broken the system is that creates the budget is to focus on specific comparisons of what was funded and what was not.

The final plan is expected to provide $2.7 million for the program that provides lifesaving AIDS drugs for people who earn less than $11,600 a year.

That is almost $2 million less than Easley recommended and means that hundreds of people who need the drugs and meet the state’s absurd income restriction won’t get them.

But the final budget is expected to include $1.9 million for the Coastal Studies Institute that does research on coastal history and ecology, $400,000 for the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, $100,000 to pay for promotion of Civil War tourism, and $3.1 million for local museums across the state.

These projects and dozens of others like them funded in the budget may be worthy of state support.

Government should support the arts and tourism, but not at the expense of people who cannot afford lifesaving medication, children who need health care, or parents who need help with affordable day care so they can go to work.

These are simply indefensible choices. While making them does not mean individual legislators are evil and heartless, it does show they accept a system that forces lifesaving drugs to compete with tourism promotion for financial support.


Chris Fitzsimon is director of NC Policy Watch, a program of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which publishes the Philanthropy Journal.

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