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Wednesday, 23 February 2011 20:47

Budgets and politics clashing across the land

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Politics and state budgets aren’t usually that interesting, but this year that’s not the case. Ideologies are clashing as lawmakers struggle to find a way through this recession, and we will all be affected by the outcome.

North Carolina and Wisconsin are very different states but share a similar problem — a budget crisis like that facing states across the country as stimulus funding dries up and tax revenues are still down. Fortunately for us who live in the Tar Heel state, our leaders are dealing with their problems in a very different fashion.

In last week’s edition, we published a cover story examining how the state was looking at this year’s Golden LEAF allocation as one extra pot of money from which to stem an expected $2.4 billion budget shortfall. The money is a continuing payment from the massive lawsuit brought against tobacco companies by 45 states.

Gov. Beverly Perdue does not support raiding the Golden LEAF money. She has sent a budget to lawmakers that will lead to a raft of cuts, including cutting thousands of state jobs, but she says she won’t reduce teaching positions. A story in The Mountaineer newspaper this week had local lawmakers predicting the possible closure of the prison in Hazelwood and significant cuts to community colleges and a cost shifting that will force public schools to come up with money for transportation and text books (meaning teachers could be cut despite Perdue’s promises).

Amid this climate, what is the state to do? Even the Democratic governor’s budget will hurt local communities while keeping alive a sales tax that was due to expire. Almost every GOP lawmaker in the General Assembly ran on the promise to sunset that tax, so the Republicans — who control both chambers of the state legislature — have to either make deeper cuts or find new money. And that is what led to the proposal that money from funds like the Golden LEAF may be diverted for at least a year.

After our story ran last week, newly elected Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, called to say our story was good in pointing out the budget position the state finds itself in. Now, however, everyone has to look for creative ways to find a fix.

“What if the Golden LEAF money were re-distributed to, say, the Rural Center,” suggested Davis, saying this was just an example of the kind of thinking that needs to happen in the General Assembly. His point was the money would still come back to the rural communities who need it, but that the $1.6 million in administrative costs could be saved.

So what’s going to happen in Raleigh come June when the rubber hits the road? Unfortunately, I believe some sacred cows will be gored in the name of fiscal responsibility. Personally, I think a one-year diversion of funds going to some granting agencies is not a bad idea. I also think pay cuts for higher-paid state employees is not out of the question.

I would rather look at those options rather than cutting classroom teachers, raising tuition, and hamstringing the community colleges. We can only hope that with compromises a fair spending plan can be developed.

•••

In Wisconsin, the plan to take away the bargaining rights of unions is just shortsighted, an idea that will do much more harm than good.

For those following the situation up there, the GOP governor wants public sector employees to begin paying some of their own money into their retirement and health insurance plans. In a state where the average teacher salary is about $75,000 per year, this seems a reasonable proposition.

On the other hand, he also wants to take away the collective bargaining rights of the union. The employees have agreed to the pay concessions, but they are protesting in the streets to protect their bargaining rights for the future.

As the economy has soured and we’ve lost manufacturing jobs in this country, unions have been painted as a big evil. The union groups that once were credited with standing up for the little guys and winning concessions from factory owners are now painted as the cause for the flight of manufacturing to the Third World.

Despite sometimes unsavory actions by union leaders and despite sometimes unreasonable demands for workers who make more than most working-class folks, I still believe strongly that unions play an important role in the American workplace.

As income disparity widens, unions remain a voice for the working class. As the workplace changes, unions continue fighting for benefits and fairness. Taking away their voice is just wrong, and that’s exactly what the Wisconsin governor wants to do.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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