As state lawmakers work to quickly approve a budget, some children’s advocates are shining light on what they call a major missed opportunity for childhood development.
Legislators in Raleigh are advancing a $23.9 billion adjusted state spending plan, and have pledged to send it along to Governor Roy Cooper by the end of the week. The budget includes overall growth of almost 4 percent, average teacher raises of 6.5 percent, and hundreds of earmarks for local initiatives across the state. It also includes an additional $74 million in federal funding, which had been designated for early childhood development by the U.S. Congress. However, two-thirds of those funds are being re-routed, back into the general Department of Heath and Human Services fund.
“We have over 50,000 children on a waiting list for child care subsidies, so it’s not like this money was allocated by Congress for something we didn’t need," said Rob Thompson, deputy director of the non-profit NC Child. "We’re as a state in desperate need of resources for affordable childcare, so that’s why this redirection of funds is so upsetting.”
Of the $74 million in federal funds, only about $24 million is being appropriated for early childhood development. The other $50 million will go toward disbursements elsewhere in the expansive fiscal blueprint. Had lawmakers utilized all of the money for early childhood development, it would have created approximately 10,000 new slots in the state’s pre-K and child care programs. This budget will provide an estimated 3,700 slots.
For their part, state policymakers point to increased funding in early childhood development compared to the current spending. They contend that the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1st will have roughly $31 million more than present levels.
“I think the objective was to expand the number of slots, to expand the program, but not necessarily to spend every last penny and grow a program beyond where it needs to be grown to," said House Rules Chairman David Lewis (R-Harnett). "We think there is certainly a need to continue to invest in this area. We think we have done that. We cannot get into a spending contest with the Governor.”
Democratic Governor Roy Cooper's spending recommendations, which are more symbolic than a direct part of the legislative process, included using the full federall allotment for early childhood development.
“The General Assembly’s budget squanders a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in young children and their families,” said Sadie Weiner, Cooper's communications director, in a statement. “Their shortsighted budget uses $50 million in federal funds earmarked for young children to fill state budget gaps created by an unsustainable tax cut for corporations and the wealthy. Budgets are about priorities, and it’s clear that North Carolina’s families and children are not a priority for this General Assembly.”
Cooper’s veto of the budget last summer was overridden by Republican supermajorities. A similar override appears imminent this June.
Republican U.S. Senator Richard Burr, among a bipartisan swath of legislators who supported the funding, did not respond to a request for comment.
“It’s hard for me to speak to specific motivations,” said Thompson, from NC Child. “One thing we are clear on it there is a general tightening of the budget in North Carolina and this can be tied to on-going tax cuts that have been implemented by the General Assembly. So when we ‘re cutting the amount of revenue that’s coming in, it creates pressure to find money elsewhere, and I think that can be a contributing factor to why we’ve seen this money taken from the early childhood system and put elsewhere.”