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It’s about services, not jobs

RALEIGH — Unlike so many, the Republican legislator wasn’t getting lost in the weeds of taxes and job losses.

Rambling around the Legislative Building late at night, when typically only reporters, security and the cleanup crew are still around, he paused to remark on the $19.3 billion budget plan being considered by the House.

“If the public notices a lot of differences, they (Democrats) win. If they don’t, we win,” he said.

By “differences,” he meant in the services that North Carolinians expect from their state government.

Over the past couple of weeks, pundits, politicians and interest groups have focused on the state job losses that will be created by the budget plan that comes out of the General Assembly and the taxes that might prevent those job losses.

The Republicans in charge, who adamantly oppose the extension of a two-year tax hike scheduled to expire July 1, have downplayed the job losses.

Legislative fiscal staff puts the state position cuts at about 18,000. Republican legislative leaders say many of those jobs are vacant and others will be eliminated through normal job turnover.

The actual number of state workers laid off will be far less.

Gov. Beverly Perdue puts the position cuts at 30,000 and recently told fellow Democrats to expect the largest layoffs in state history.

The legislative estimate seems a bit low; Perdue’s is a bit high.

The House budget plan eliminates 12,000 teaching assistant positions alone. The budget proposal shows another 1,800 positions being eliminated. Those numbers don’t account for locally hired teachers and other school employees, most university faculty and workers or community college instructors.

It’s very likely that the position cuts will exceed 20,000. Determining how many of those positions translate into actual layoffs would require an after-the-fact personnel study.

Obviously, if one of those jobs is your own, the exact numbers don’t much matter.

But they also don’t change an underlying and irrefutable premise embraced by the fiscal conservatives responsible for the budget plan: Government should strive to provide services as efficiently and effectively as possible.

If state lawmakers can eliminate 50,000 jobs and still provide the services expected by the people, good for them. If they eliminate one job and 1,000 people are met with new delays or dissatisfactory service, woe be unto them.

The House budget seems to avoid the most obvious disruptions of government services. No state parks close, museums and historic sites look like they will survive and the number of prisons designated for closure aren’t unusual.

On the other hand, public schools and universities are left to sort out significant cuts, with classroom instruction surely affected. Courts may be slower and local jails more full. Environmental regulators may be more overwhelmed.

If the effect is seen as only incremental, the public will be happy to take back its penny sales tax.

If instead the budget unravels basic government services, no one will be happy with the folks in charge.

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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