LEGISLATIVE BULLETIN: Focus on These Five Key Priorities for a Budget That Works

Here’s how to support families and help take North Carolina's economy into the future

By Jeff Shaw
NC Justice Center
June 15, 2010
Creating a budget that works is a daunting task in the best of times. These, of course, are not the best of times – our economic crisis is still the deepest since the Great Depression, and our recovery continues to be slow. The budget we craft now can be our roadmap out of the recession and a way to support North Carolina’s struggling families.
In times of crisis, we find out what our priorities really are. We believe that our top priority must be crafting a budget that helps those hardest hit by the recession. 
There are sound practical reasons for taking this approach. Looking out for people who are working hard to pay the rent, pay the bills, and send their kids to school for a better life isn’t just the right thing to do -- it also helps everyone in North Carolina by creating economic prosperity through putting working families first. 
As lawmakers enter the conference process, we stand at a critical juncture. We need to seize this opportunity to build a budget that works.
To do so, we need to preserve key public investments that will help North Carolina meet the challenges of the future. Key public investments allow us to: 
Put North Carolina to Work With Proven Job-Creation Strategies: We applaud lawmakers for paying attention to unemployment. But we believe funds spent on economic development must be spent wisely, and neither the House nor the Senate jobs plan goes far enough. Instead of fiscally unsound across-the-board tax cuts, we should support a Small Business Job Growth grant program that would provide a direct subsidy to the wages and benefits for jobs newly created by employers. This would encourage job creation – which is precisely the medicine the economy needs.
Ensure Access to Quality, Affordable Health Services: Keeping our kids healthy is an investment in our shared future. Unfortunately, the North Carolina House budget adds only $3.25 million to Health Choice’s funding, which is not even enough to serve the children currently enrolled in the program. We need more like the $8.5 million Gov. Perdue's budget proposed. Closing enrollment to this program would be disastrous; keeping enrollment open would invest wisely in children and families. Plus, the federal government covers 75 percent of the cost of health insurance for eligible children, making the program even more cost-effective.
Lawmakers should also pay close attention to mental health care, especially for children. North Carolina's families are already faced with a mental health service system that has been cut to the bone. Without funding, more and more kids in need will be removed from their homes for care, leading to pain for families and costly outcomes for all of us. Meeting basic needs of the most fragile children among us – children suffering with mental illness – is fundamental.
Provide Excellent, Equitable Schools: Fair access to a quality education cannot be underemphasized. Keeping our teachers employed means we can prepare students for their future – while saving jobs in the here and now. Both will help us keep North Carolina’s economy on the path to recovery. 
The equity piece is key. Sustaining programs that aid at-risk students – such as the Disadvantaged Students Supplemental Fund (DSSF), English as a Second Language programs and dropout prevention grants --  is one way we can keep access to education open and fair. 
The House's budget wisely plans for a study on school districts moving toward re-segregation of schools. It also allows school segregation to be factored into the DSSF formula. We've come so far toward high-quality, equitable schools, and we can't turn back now. These steps will keep our schools moving forward. 
Offer Effective Early Education and Meet the Needs of Working Parents: Multiple studies have shown that More at Four, our education program for at-risk four-year-olds, is one of the state's best investments. One dollar spent today can dramatically improve educational outcomes years down the road and put children on a path to fully participate in the economy as adults. We can't compromise on education for our kids, especially when supporting More at Four makes economic sense, too.  
Strong families help kids succeed. North Carolina should recognize this, and preserve programs that help working parents. With unemployment hovering around 10 percent, we need to support families out there looking for work – and it's hard to find a job with a baby on your hip. 
Child care subsidies are work supports that are absolutely critical in this economy. State leaders should fully fund childcare subsidies to reduce the waiting list for eligible parents and allow out-of-work parents who are otherwise eligible to qualify for subsidies temporarily while they look for a new job. To truly support family values, we should truly support families. 
Invest in Sustainable Communities: Healthy communities in the future require sound planning today. The Senate's version of the budget sets up a task force that will help us be thoughtful about planning. Putting this task force in place could help North Carolina tap into additional federal infrastructure dollars – infusing our state with badly needed capital. Let's not leave federal dollars on the table. Let's take advantage of an opportunity to take North Carolina communities forward.

On the surface, these programs might seem to be quite different from each other. In reality, they share common threads. They're all proven to work; they're all cost-effective. Most of all, they all point us toward a budget that truly aids North Carolina's working families.  

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