July 13, 2024 11:57 pm
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Opinion | The NC Legislature’s Irresponsibly Undisciplined Budgeting

Credit: iStock

by Rob Schofield, NC Newsline

Imagine yourself in the following situation:

Your children lack decent clothing and shoes and depend on reduced-price school meals to meet their weekly nutrition requirements.

Your house has become dilapidated, with a leaky roof and poorly functioning HVAC system, and the power company is threatening to turn off your electricity for nonpayment.

The sole family car spews smoke, has bald tires and is on its last legs.

Now add in the following incongruous additional circumstances: You have a steadily growing bank account with a current balance of a million dollars, no debt to speak of, a good job and an offer for an even better one at a handsome salary.

What would you do?

For most sane and responsible people, such a situation is unimaginable as they would have long since used some of their available resources to address pressing family needs. And if thanks to some strange series of events, they did suddenly find themselves in such a predicament, the course of action would be obvious.

If, however, you’re among the tiny and bizarrely penurious smattering of individuals whose answer would be to leave the money sitting there, turn down the job, quit the one you have, and tell the kids to fend for themselves, you’d be right in step with the crazy and confounding approach of North Carolina Republican legislative leaders.

This is really not an exaggeration.

Right now, as with our hypothetical family, several core state agencies, structures and services are struggling mightily in North Carolina.

As has been documented repeatedly, the state’s public education system – the linchpin of our future – is in difficult straits that, in many places, border on dire. It has a massive personnel shortage (teachers, principals, bus drivers, counselors, nurses, cafeteria workers), and chronic morale issues among many who remain. Facility needs total in the billions of dollars. Even once woebegone laggards like Alabama and Mississippi are now investing more in their public schools.

But that’s hardly the only such problem.

At a moment in which our natural environment faces unprecedented challenges – many of which are deeply threatening to human health and wellbeing – the NC Department of Environmental Quality lacks the resources to perform basic tasks. As WRAL reported last week, research into the impact of the growing array of toxic chemicals found in state waterways – particularly with respect the fish that ingest the chemicals and later end up on human dinner plates – have been greatly hindered by staffing shortages.

As the article explained:

“The DEQ’s overall job vacancy rate is about 15.1%. The vacancy rate for environmental specialists is more than 20% and engineers is more than 23%. Approximately 31% of DEQ employees are eligible to retire within the next five years.”

And the list goes on.

As Deputy Secretary of the Division of Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention William Lassiter explained in a June interview with NC Newsline, the staffing shortages in his agency have reached the absurdly high level almost 50%. As he noted at the time, the situation is so desperate that Lassiter and his senior staff members regularly spend their weekends holding down the fort in the facilities themselves.

Several other state agencies face similar challenges.

And while it would be one thing to grapple with such big and problematic funding and staffing shortages in a time of recession and state budget shortfalls, as has been well-documented, North Carolina is in no such fix.

Rather, as with our fictional family, the state has plenty of money and the ability to raise all that’s needed in a fair and efficient manner.

State bank accounts are flush with billions in reserves. What’s more, had lawmakers simply left the state tax code where it was at the beginning of the last decade – a time in which the state was continually ranked near the top of the national pack in various “best for business” lists – it would have billions more.

Unfortunately, rather than doing what’s rational and obvious, lawmakers are leaving vast sums in the bank unspent and doubling down on a new round of regressive tax cuts that will consign core public structures and services to another year of unnecessary pain and struggle.

As always, the bitter irony in this kind of cheapskate budgeting is that it is supposedly premised on a philosophical commitment to self-discipline and personal responsibility. You know how this rap goes — it’s the same haughty message about “bootstraps” and “self-discipline” that wealthy tightwads have always preached to those struggling to make do with less.

But, of course, things like discipline, self-reliance and responsibility aren’t (or shouldn’t be anyway) merely for those at the bottom of the economic ladder or solely about hoarding cash. They’re also about making wise investments and fulfilling our duty to others.

And that’s why North Carolina’s present course of action in fiscal policy – in which a collection of comfortably well-off lawmakers repeatedly enact tax and spending cuts that chiefly benefit themselves and their well-off friends, while depriving common good institutions of the basic resources they need to operate properly for everyone’s benefit — is the very definition of self-interested and undisciplined hypocrisy.

This article originally appeared in NC Newsline and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.