Did you see the major theatrical presentation put on by state leaders in Raleigh over the last several weeks?
The script was brilliantly followed, but the plot was a bit predictable.
I am talking, of course, about the high drama surrounding the North Carolina House of Representatives crafting its budget proposal for the coming fiscal year. Faced with revenue projections even lower than anticipated, the House knew it didn’t have the political will to balance the budget with cuts alone. Tax increases were sure to be part of any budget package.
In the midst of a recession driving unemployment to nearly 12 percent, and the public’s growing animosity toward bigger government as displayed by the April 15 tea parties, House leaders knew that North Carolinians would be outraged by any proposed tax hikes. So they went to the drawing board to devise a strategy to make tax increases more palatable.
Their strategy revolved around an age-old ploy that exemplifies the lowest form of political gamesmanship.
Step one was to convince the public that the House really, truly wanted to balance the budget without raising taxes. Step two was to craft a budget without new taxes, while purposefully including cuts to the most sympathetic of government programs; especially school teachers, the elderly and the mentally ill.
These changes were never serious; they were simply a scare tactic to rally public opinion against such heartless cuts in order to ease opposition to tax increases.
House leaders fueled the panic with comments such as “We have had to take draconian cuts, we have had to take cuts that people don’t like,” from lead budget-writer Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham.
The tactic worked.
In response to the original House budget proposal, teacher groups, state employee organizations and social service providers across the state unwittingly played their role in this con game. N.C. Association of Educators President Sheri Strickland expressed her dismay by calling the House plan “dangerous and draconian.”
The ARC of North Carolina, a major player in the advocacy for people with disabilities, declared on its blog that the unintended consequences of the House budget will be “too horrific to imagine,” and even that “people will die.”
This public outrage spawned a flood of calls and emails to the offices of House members, pleading for a “balanced approach” to balancing the budget.
House leaders therefore had the cover they needed to introduce their $784 million tax increase.
It was the perfect script. Establish a villain – a “cuts only” budget plan that cuts funding for the most sympathetic items like school teachers and social services for developmentally disabled children – and then bring a hero in to save the day: new taxes.
Meanwhile, House budget writers insisted it is their deep concern about “restoring” funding for education and those in need motivating their massive job-killing tax increase.
They convinced the public that there was no other choice: either cut teachers and aid to the mentally ill, or raise taxes. But if they were indeed so concerned about such programs, why were they so quick to put those on the chopping block, but left substantial funding for much more questionable items intact?
A little research turns up significant amounts of uncut funding for programs that would be considered a lower priority than teachers and disabled children by any reasonable person. Such items include: $11 million for the N.C. Arts Council and N.C. Symphony, $3 million for oyster reef and sanctuary programs, $7.7 million for the Museum of Natural Science, $13 million for state public television, $1.2 million for a botanical garden at UNC-Chapel Hill and half a million dollars for an Ergonomics Center at N.C. State. And there are dozens more examples just like these.
Did House budget writers really think these programs were untouchable, but teachers were expendable? I doubt it. But presenting a budget plan with a more sensible prioritization of cuts wouldn’t have fit the script.
House leaders who orchestrated this pitiful ploy should be ashamed of themselves. Purposefully manipulating the emotions of thousands of educators and social workers for their political ends is why so many people have such a low opinion of politicians.
Bravo, House leadership. You executed your script to perfection and got your tax plan included in the budget. I hope you are proud of yourselves.