- The new state budget is a disaster for North Carolina families
- The budget process itself was nearly as sordid as its contents
- Medicaid expansion is still a major win for the state and its people
Last week, North Carolina’s long and tortuous state budget drama finally came to an ignoble conclusion.
The budget itself was delayed for months, due to a spectacular (and spectacularly embarrassing) attempt to ram through a casino gambling scheme that had it all: secret meetings, insider land deals, non-disclosure agreements, and of course, millions in campaign cash and lobbyist fees. Even in a state where IHOP and Biscuitville have become shorthand terms for sordid political corruption, Republican leaders Phil Berger and Tim Moore’s collaboration with the Maryland casino developer Cordish Companies was shocking in its complete lack of guile.
United Democratic opposition, joined by a small handful of Republican holdouts, was able to foil the casino scheme – at least for this session. Shortly thereafter, Republican state lawmakers publicly unveiled for the first time their full 625-page final version of the state budget. Though nearly three months overdue, they were suddenly in a great hurry to vote on it: votes were scheduled a mere 18 hours after Democrats and the general public were first given their first glimpse of the bill.
Even by the unenviable standards of North Carolina’s own political history, the 2023 state budget process set new standards for lack of transparency, dysfunction, and corrupt insider dealing. It was secretive to the point of dark comedy. It was delayed over and over again to accommodate new requests (or demands) from favored lobbyists – and, famously now, held hostage for casinos. The final budget itself was, in short, an ugly and authoritarian piece of work that is unworthy of North Carolina.
There are innumerable petty items in the 2023 state budget (see the full 625-page text), but let us enumerate the worst offenders.
- The private school voucher expansion is estimated to cut $200 million from North Carolina’s public school systems, while sending over half a billion dollars to subsidize tuition at private schools. Lawmakers even found an additional $1 million that they added as a kickback to the Parents for Educational Freedom, the dark-money Republican organization that was paid $500,000 by the same method in 2021, to conduct marketing for the program. The state of North Carolina will, thus, spend a million dollars trying to persuade parents to remove their children from public schools.
- Measly teacher and state employee raises. While nearly unlimited money was available for the fraud-ridden private school voucher network, lawmakers came up with only a 6.4% raise for North Carolina’s teachers – spread out over two years. Even less, for more experienced ones. It was a statement loud and clear about how much value lawmakers put in state workers and their jobs – except, of course, for the politicians. The budget gave elected members of the Council of State a whopping 14.5% raise over the next two years.
- Funding for fake anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy clinics.” The budget includes over $20 million in direct, no-strings-attached funding to several networks of “crisis pregnancy clinics,” run by evangelical anti-abortion groups. These groups blatantly lie to women about their healthcare options in order to dissuade them from obtaining an abortion, and are run by anti-abortion religious groups with that specific purpose in mind.
- Dramatic cutbacks to government transparency. A single paragraph in the budget – which not a single member of the legislature will acknowledge adding – codifies a sweeping curtailment of the state’s public records act. By a simple act of whim, North Carolina legislators of the future will be able to conceal their official correspondence and documents from the public. It is the most dramatic blow to North Carolina’s public transparency in living memory.
- The legislature’s new “secret police.” Republican leaders invented a whole new investigative agency – under their own partisan control, of course. The Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations will be newly empowered to investigate executive branch agencies, with all participants under an automatic, and all-encompassing, gag order. The Committee will even be empowered to charge people with crimes, if they are perceived to not be satisfactorily cooperative.
- Judicial harassment. The Judicial Standards Commission, an obscure state agency that disciplines judges, is put firmly under control of legislative leaders. Already, the Commission has begun partisan “investigations” of Democratic judges, such as Justice Anita Earls. This follows a nationwide pattern of political warfare spreading into courtrooms.
- Election (in)security. The budget officially bans the State Board of Election from joining ERIC, a multi-state organization that helps states keep voting rolls clear of duplications and errors – a true head-scratcher, after much Republican agonizing over so-called “election integrity.”
- A petty swipe at Legal Aid. The nonprofit Legal Aid of North Carolina provides as innocuous a service as one could imagine: providing low-cost legal assistance to people in need. Yet the organization is singled out by name in the budget, and its attorneys banned from receiving loan repayment assistance through the state foundation NC LEAF.
- New taxes on Uber and Lyft. The budget levies a new tax of 1-1.5% on all Uber and Lyft rides.
- Caps special education funding. School systems are limited in how many children with special needs they may enroll. By state law, they will no longer receive commensurate additional funding if more than 13% of their total enrollment are children with special needs.
- Mark Robinson gets special treatment. Republican Lt. Governor Mark Robinson – and only him – is given a special, taxpayer-funded security detail of four NC highway patrolmen. This appears to be purely for the benefit of Robinson’s upcoming gubernatorial campaign, as the provision sunsets on December 31, 2024.
This is not, of course, an exhaustive list. The full implications of the 625-page budget, which was only released publicly on Wednesday afternoon, are still becoming clear. But it amounts to a wishlist of extreme, irresponsible and authoritarian policy – all of it, immune from the Governor’s veto pen.
Indeed, Governor Cooper has stated that he will not veto the budget as written. Mostly, this is because doing so would do little good: Republicans have a veto-proof majority, and even without his signature, it will become law. But it’s also because the budget passage unlocks the Governor’s signature policy priority: Medicaid expansion. North Carolina will officially become the 41st state to expand Medicaid, giving over 600,000 low-income North Carolinians access to affordable healthcare.
In the end, Republican leaders extracted a very high price for this policy victory. Most of the budget is an abject disaster for North Carolina, its families, kids and working people. But Medicaid expansion is itself an extremely big win. The people of North Carolina will be far better off for it. Whether that benefit outweighs the tremendous harm elsewhere in the 2023-2024 state budget, is in the eye of the beholder.