By Michelle Hughes
Now that the Senate has passed its 500-page proposed budget, reporters and government-watchers have begun to dive in to the hundreds of details that make up the document — what’s in it for people, policies and programs; how it differs from the House version; and how it measures up to what we think it should be.
Figuring out how the money flows is important — a dry business, maybe, but crucial for seeing the emerging picture of our state’s future. And the quality of that future lies in how well we support the healthy development of our state’s 2.3 million children. Our state’s budget for children’s health, education and safety is a strong indicator of the quality of life that will unfold around us, whether or not we are parents ourselves.
NC Child has specifically analyzed the issues in the House and Senate budgets affecting children. We’ve found some bright spots, and some areas of real concern.
First, some positive proposals:
The Senate proposed extending the age of foster care to 21, which will help pave the way for a successful transition into adulthood for youth in foster care.
The House included provisions in its budget that would expand access to child care subsidies, allowing working families to stay employed and ensure their children are in quality care settings.
Both chambers have agreed to increase funding for the Nurse-Family Partnership, a highly effective program that provides intensive support to at-risk, first-time mothers and has been shown to reduce child abuse and neglect, improve birth outcomes, reduce juvenile crime and increase maternal education and employment..
Taken together, those and other positive initiatives show that in some important ways, legislators understand that all things that affect children’s lives are connected to the health and success of the families they grow up in. It shows that the legislature does acknowledge the value in creating and maintaining public systems and structures that create strong, healthy communities, strong families and a good quality of life for all of us.
But in the Senate budget in particular there are some serious gaps in funding for critical efforts, some important policy pieces that need to be fixed. Citizens who are concerned about our future should dig in and learn more about what’s on the table.
Here are some of the items that need to be fixed. The Senate budget:
— fails to include two key provisions that were in the House budget that would restore access to high-quality child care for thousands of children.
— lowers funding for NC Pre-K by $2.7 million, which would result in the loss of 520 NC Pre-K slots.
— cuts $185 million in funding for the agencies (LME/MCOs) that provide mental health services.
— eliminates Community Care of North Carolina and the Office of Minority Health.
— eliminates funding for drivers education.
— cuts more than 5,000 teacher assistants this year and more than 8,500 next year. That would be a net reduction in classroom supervision and support, even if additional class-room teachers are hired to reduce class size.
It’s expected that the process of negotiating a final bill between the House and Senate will take weeks.
And it illustrates the difficulty of adequately investing in children with a continuously eroding revenue base. According to the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center, the Senate’s tax plan, which is included in the budget proposal, would result in the loss of $951 million over the biennium and over $1 billion annually once it is fully implemented.
With that amount of funding, the Senate could eliminate the child care subsidy waiting list of 31,359 children, maintain funding for teacher assistants, and expand NC Pre-K to serve all low-income 4-year-olds in the state.
One thing is for sure: this could be a better budget. And it needs to be. For 2.3 million young citizens who are counting on us to make smart investments in their future, in our future, in North Carolina’s future.
That’s good for everybody.