Sunlight, UNC and the Senate budget

Published 5:22 am Wednesday, June 18, 2008

By Staff
Several pieces of the much-anticipated Senate budget appeared Monday afternoon, though not many senators were on hand to see it. Sen. Steve Goss sat alone in the Health and Human Services Subcommittee, outnumbered by the two co-chairs, who recognized staff members to present the budget report.
No amendments were allowed and no votes were taken in any of the six budget subcommittee meetings. That will come Tuesday as the full Senate budget magically makes it way to the Senate Appropriations Committee from the corner room where a handful of Senate leaders have been putting it together in the last few weeks.
Monday’s meetings confirmed many of the details about the Senate budget reported by blogs and advocates over the last few days. The Senate spends roughly the same amount as the House on Health and Human Services, with at least three significant differences.
Senate leaders decided to cut $10 million more than the House from the state’s health-care program for children, citing the uncertainty of federal funding as Congress battles over the program.
That doesn’t mean much to parents of uninsured children, especially since as Adam Searing points out, the state could actually expand coverage on its own if lawmakers could come up with $13 million for the program instead of using the federal gridlock to shift the money to other places.
The Senate saves $14 million by lowering the Medicaid reimbursement for health care providers more than the House lowered it. And the Senate plan also cuts another $11 million in recurring funding from of the community support program in the Division of Mental Health that has come under fire after a News &Observer series.
The budget gives the Department of Health and Human Services the combined $36 million in savings in a one-time reserve to give officials time to dramatically tighten restrictions on the program, a move that may end up denying important services to people who need them.
The Senate human-services budget is roughly the same as the House despite the unwise cuts, particularly to children’s health care. But the accounting move freed up $36 million in recurring funding for Senate budget writers and they spent it all and more in education, with the University of North Carolina and More at Four, Gov. Mike Easley’s program for at-risk kids, the main beneficiaries.
The Senate plan spends $23 million less on public schools and $2 million less on community colleges than the House, while increasing funding for the UNC system by $79 million.
The additional spending for UNC includes more support for enrollment increases, more money for the Biopolis Research complex in Kannapolis, a larger endowment to attract faculty, and more money for campus safety projects.
The Senate budget provides $41 million in new funding for More at Four, roughly double what the House proposed. It only spends $11 million to pay for the huge increase in the price of fuel for school buses. The House estimated it would take $45 million.
The Senate funds only half of the House investment in dropout prevention grants and less in child nutrition.
In most other areas, the Senate budget is close to the House plan for better and worse. There’s money to educate disabled kids and provide housing for disabled adults. There are inexplicably small investments in child care and affordable housing.
And there is a $25 million reduction in the transfer from the Highway Trust Fund to the General Fund, the same amount that both budgets spend to build a toll road in Western Wake County.
Most families facing a housing crisis or unable to afford child care will not only have to wait another year for help, they may soon have to pay more to drive to work. The House budget reduces the transfer even more the year after next to pay for a toll road near Monroe.
The Senate budget ups the ante, proposing taking even more money from schools and housing and child care in the next few years to build a toll bridge in Currituck County and a new expressway near Gastonia.
There are still big questions about the Senate budget that will be answered in the coming days, though it looks like raises for teachers and state employees will be close to what the House passed.
The Senate is expected to fund a different list of construction projects and the tax credit packages will be diametrically opposed, the House approving an increase in the State Earned Income Tax Credit to help the working poor while the Senate has already passed a repeal of the gift tax that primarily helps the wealthy.
Then there is the absurd Senate budget process itself, pointed out by of all people, former Sen. Sandy Sands, now a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute and other corporate interests.
Sands was upset by a provision in the Senate transportation budget to make it easier for retailers to blend gas with ethanol, telling lawmakers that he had never seen the provision and that “it is the kind of thing that needs to be brought out into the sunlight so we can look at it.”
Sunlight on the budget process. There’s an idea.