North Carolina lawmakers finally appear poised to pass a state budget. The 625-page, $30 billion spending plan was released to the public shortly after 4 p.m. Wednesday — only 18 hours before the first of several votes was scheduled to occur. Most Democrats apparently had not seen a final version of the budget until that point, either.
Rather than using the state’s multibillion-dollar surplus to fully fund public schools or provide raises and cost-of-living adjustments that actually keep pace with inflation, the budget accelerates income tax cuts that jeopardize delivery of basic state services while giving the wealthiest households the biggest savings.
But the budget does more than just allocate funds. A number of changes to state law are also tucked inside the budget, where they aren’t subject to the same committee hearings and public review. Here’s what we think are the five worst policy changes in the budget, from bad to very bad:
5. Power shifts
The budget gives the legislature more power over appointments to the state’s community college system and the Judicial Standards Commission, which investigates complaints against judges.
One section of the budget adds a requirement that the president of the community college system be confirmed by the legislature after being chosen by the State Board of Community Colleges. It also strips the governor of the ability to make appointments to the board. The 10 appointments historically made by the governor would now be made by the legislature.
Another provision removes the State Bar Council’s authority to make appointments to the Judicial Standards Commission and instead gives those four appointments to Republicans in the General Assembly.
The legislature’s Republican majority continues to try to redistribute power to itself.
4. Universal school vouchers
The budget provides a significant boost to North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship program, tripling funding to $520.5 million by the 2032-33 fiscal year in the legislature’s quest to offer universal private school vouchers.
It also removes the income eligibility requirements for families to receive vouchers. Voucher amounts would still be tied income level, so that lower-income families would receive the highest amount of funds. But the wealthiest families would still be eligible for a significant subsidy.
As we’ve said before, that’s bad news. It gives subsidies to wealthy families who don’t need them, and funnels more taxpayer dollars into unaccountable private schools.
3. Targeting Legal Aid lawyers
Lawyers working for Legal Aid of North Carolina, a nonprofit that provides free legal services to low-income people in civil matters, would no longer be eligible for tuition assistance under a statewide program that helps public-interest attorneys repay their law school debt.
It’s not exactly clear why Legal Aid of North Carolina was targeted, but it’s not the first time that lawmakers have done so. Over the years, the General Assembly has removed appropriations for legal services and repealed a law that distributed a portion of court fees to groups in the legal aid community, including Legal Aid of North Carolina.
Exempting Legal Aid lawyers from student debt relief is a cruel move that will make it harder to attract lawyers to help working class people.
2. Rolling back access to public records
One particularly disturbing provision could virtually exempt state lawmakers from public records law. As written, it could give lawmakers broad discretion to decide which of their records are public — and it also states that lawmakers “shall not be required to reveal or to consent to reveal any document, supporting document, drafting request, or information request made or received by that legislator while a legislator.”
The budget also repeals a law that gives the public access to legislative records and communications related to redistricting — meaning that the process by which legislative and congressional maps are drawn could become further shrouded in secrecy.
So much for democracy.
1. Legislators picking their judges?
The budget would create 10 new “special” superior court judgeships. Unlike regular superior court judges, which are elected by voters, these judges would be appointed by the legislature. Five would be nominated by the Speaker of the House, and five by the leader of the Senate.
The chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court would be able to select those judges to hear challenges to legislative and congressional districts, as well as laws passed by the General Assembly — possibly making it more likely that such challenges will be decided in lawmakers’ favor.