Opinion: Daily Journal

Getting the Drift & Short Shrift

RALEIGH – As the month of July drew to a close without an agreement on a FY 2005-07 state budget, one could get the drift of the political debate in Raleigh by glancing down a list of news headlines from the state capital.

“Decimal error leaves lawmakers scrambling over N.C. Health Choice,” stated one item. It seems that state officials erroneously computed how long federal funds will last given the currently projected enrollment in Health Choice, a program created in a fit of ineptitude by a Republican Congress and now enrolling 135,000 children in North Carolina. Supporters typically suggest that these children are “poor” and live in households that can’t afford health insurance, neither of which is correct. Poor children are, by definition, eligible for Medicaid, and most families in the income levels covered by Health Choice are enrolled in private or employer-provided health plans, not in welfare programs.

The math error means that the funds already included in the proposed state budget, $15 million in FY 2005-06 and about $36 million in FY 2006-07, will be insufficient to cover enrollment. Tens of thousands of children will be shut out of the program. Advocates of government-controlled health care shrug this off with the suggestion that these children be shoved into Medicaid, as if it is in good financial shape. All to the better, in their minds, if families no longer consider their children to be their own responsibility – they wish the private market to collapse and socialized health insurance to prevail.

But for those who prefer to retain one of the best health care systems on the planet, the Health Choice miscue should offer the opportunity to rectify previous mistakes. At the very least, North Carolina should ask for a waiver to use all federal and state dollars to offer tax credits or premium supports for families purchasing private health plans, much as Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida is advocating within Medicaid itself.

No such luck, so far.

On another fiscal front, the North Carolina Association of Educators is whining about inadequate raises and proposed changes in the education budget to redirect teacher-assistant funding to more productive uses. Teachers’ raises have, of course, been much more generous than those for rank-and-file state employees in recent years, and average teacher compensation in North Carolina remains far above the national average when properly measured. And teacher assistants have little effect on educational outcomes.

These facts don’t matter, it seems. The bald assertion is that if you care about children, you have to favor raising taxes (again) to pay for more welfare and education spending (again). Such is the poverty of the policy debate in Raleigh on a hot day in late July.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.