The baffling budget and education

Published 7:33 am Monday, June 30, 2008

By Staff
Just when you thought the legislative budget process couldn’t get any more frustrating, it reached new heights of insanity Tuesday, alternating between closed, unannounced meetings and brief episodes of openness revealing that rank and file lawmakers have little power and decisions they thought they had made don’t mean much.
House and Senate members of the Health and Human Services Subcommittee met Monday in a meeting that was listed on the legislative calendar and voted for a package of recommendations that weren’t perfect, but made important progress on children’s health care and a host of other issues.
But when the co-chairs of the committee took the recommendations to the House and Senate leaders holding court in the corner room of the Legislative Office Building, the expansion of children’s health care and several other important decisions made by the subcommittee were “flagged,” meaning the members of the powerful corner room club wanted to reconsider, throwing the funding of the programs into doubt.
Other budget subcommittees apparently met Monday too, but with no notice, no listing on any calendar, no opportunity for the media or the public to sit in. The Education Subcommittee met at 1 p.m. Monday and approved a final budget, much of it too sent into limbo Tuesday morning with the dreaded flags attached by the corner room crowd.
The corner room was open much of the day Tuesday and a handful of reporters and advocates wandered in and out, hoping to time it right to hear a report from the subcommittee meeting they didn’t know about, and listen to a handful of legislators reject or question the unanimous decisions of the rank and file members of the committee.
Complaints about the insane process or the arbitrary decisions by the folks holding court are dismissed by many legislators and reporters alike as inside baseball, procedural stories that nobody outside the legislative world cares much about, so the absurd process rolls on as lawmakers scramble to pass a budget before Monday, the end of the state fiscal year.
It appears that lost in the rush is the commitment by leaders of the House and Senate to make education the priority in the budget they say is tight because of limited revenues as a result of the sluggish economy.
The plan approved by the education subcommittee spends $34 million less on public schools than the House budget, $10 million less than the Senate plan, with much of the money shifted to the university system.
The latest public school budget provides $30 million for the increased fuel costs for school buses that education officials say could end up being twice that much, meaning that local school districts or the state education budget would have to make up the difference.
Gov. Mike Easley can’t be happy, either. The budget includes only half of his funding request for More at Four, his program for at-risk kids, and the funding is one-time money, not a continuing appropriation.
State Board of Education Chair Howard Lee called a special meeting of the Board Tuesday afternoon to point out the shortfalls in the education budget. The plan provides $70 million for teacher bonuses as part of the ABC testing program, $37 million short of what the bonuses cost.
The budget reduces the allotment for school enrollment by $13 million too, adding up to a budget hole fir public schools approaching $80 million that will have to be filled somehow, most likely with deep cuts in education programs at the state and local level.
That would have been clear and maybe reported if the education budget committee had met in the open and heard from educators and the public. But it is a back room game now, where flags and deals and lobbyists rule.
And it’s no way to do the people’s business.