RALEIGH (September 22, 2023) – The N.C. General Assembly’s conference budget released earlier this week was more than two months late, a costly delay reflecting an unconscionable disregard for teachers, state employees, and our fellow North Carolinians in the health insurance coverage gap. Beyond the uncertainty and frustration it caused, thousands of individuals have been denied access to life-saving health insurance coverage for months. The protracted, undemocratic, and opaque process ultimately yielded a budget that favors corporate interests over people and tax breaks for the wealthy over stable funding for public institutions.

Nearly as distressing and egregious was the process itself. To release a 625-page spending plan less than 24 hours before voting on it makes a mockery of the democratic process. The budget document—which should be a thorough and complete plan—contains mistakes, notably a provision that would put the state out of compliance with REAL ID. Not only was there inadequate opportunity for vetting, many NCGA members had no window at all into numerous provisions written behind closed doors by a select group of lawmakers. To make matters worse, budget writers decided to chill open government and democracy itself by exempting themselves from public records laws and creating multiple tiers of access for those wishing to meet with members.

While the budget itself represents the final step in expanding Medicaid, it lacks the investments needed to adequately fund our public education system and support households with low incomes. Now, the legislature is presenting the governor and our state with an impossible choice. There’s no reason that providing health insurance to 600,000 people should also require locking in revenue reductions that will leave our public schools and other critical institutions dangerously underfunded.

For certain, the most glaring example of this budget’s underinvestment is in public education. Legislators have once again failed to uphold their constitutional duty to provide all students with access to decently funded schools. In November of last year, the Supreme Court ordered state lawmakers to “honor their constitutional oaths by working together” to ensure that all students have access to schools that provide meaningful educational opportunities. This budget ignores the court-ordered spending plan to meet these basic constitutional funding goals and instead provides public schools a year-over-year reduction of 0.6 percent.

This ongoing neglect has led to widespread teacher vacancies that disproportionately impact Black students and students from families with low incomes. Last year, nearly one in every 18 classrooms lacked an appropriately licensed teacher. This budget neglects research-based solutions for improving teacher recruitment and retention, such as improving working conditions and providing salaries competitive with other degree-requiring professions. On average, teachers will receive raises of just 3.6 percent this year. When adjusted for inflation, starting salaries for teachers remain nearly 13 percent below where they were as recently as the 2015-16 school year.

Rather than address the real challenges facing our schools, legislators have instead funded a massive expansion of the state’s unregulated voucher program. It would triple the funding for the program by opening it up to wealthy individuals who have already enrolled their children in private schools, resulting in a massive giveaway of taxpayer money to the wealthiest North Carolinians. This expansion will place further strain on public school budgets while exacerbating racial segregation and socioeconomic inequities.

Legislative leaders could provide our schools with adequate funding and our state workers with decent wages. But instead, they have prioritized tax cuts that largely benefit wealthy North Carolinians. Compared to the governor’s proposed tax plan, which held the corporate income tax rate at 2.5 percent (foregoing further scheduled reductions), and offered a progressive individual income tax structure, the conference budget accelerates planned individual income tax reductions. It’s an unsustainable plan that – unless reversed – will require further cuts to critical services in future years.

As the governor’s budget proposal clearly showed, more robust investments to support economic mobility are possible with an equitable generation of revenue. As the most recent Census Bureau data revealed, 12.8 percent of our state’s population lives in poverty, and 17.2 percent of our state’s children live in poverty. It is clear we need policy choices that center people with low incomes, communities of color, immigrants, and working people.

North Carolinians deserve a budget that cares for our neighbors in the healthcare coverage gap, robustly funds our public education system, and honors our worthy teachers and state employees. Our state deserves better; our legislators can and must do better.