State budget reflects strained finances
The state budget is the most important piece of legislation passed by the General Assembly every year.
It is not only the funding mechanism for state agencies and programs, it serves as a statement of the state's priorities by each General Assembly.
The document is interpreted on two levels: There is the real world consequence, how those spending decisions affect the taxpayers, the state employees, the state retirees, the students and the motorists; there is the politics, how the decisions are driven by considerations of political futures.
This year, the reality is that the $20.2 billion state budget plan reflects a state whose finances are better than last year but still strained.
So, with a Republican majority that came to power vowing not to raise taxes, public schools receive a little more state money -- $42 million more based on a year-over-year comparison and $143 million going to help reverse a specific flexibility cut. It isn't quite enough to offset losses of expiring federal stimulus dollars and well short of the amount needed reverse three years of previous cuts.
To put that $42 million in context, it represents less than a 1 percent increase on a $7.5 billion public schools budget.
State employees and teachers will also receive their first raises since 2008, but the increases average only 1.2 percent. State retirees will see a 1 percent cost-of-living adjustment to their retirement benefits. There is a slight cut and capping of the state gas tax.
The budget also includes provisions to embark on a major public school overhaul championed by Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican. The plan would focus on early grade reading and limit social promotion for third-graders not reading at grade level. It would also hold schools accountable by assigning them A-F grades based on student performance.
So, in the real world, this state budget will likely result in about the same kinds of constraints as the current-year budget.
It could lead to some pretty substantial changes in the direction of public schooling, especially at the elementary school level.