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The Party Line is dedicated to examining regional issues and policies through the figures who give shape to them. These are critical, complex, and even downright confusing times we live in. There’s a lot to navigate nationally and in the Carolinas; whether it’s elections, debates on gay marriage, public school closings, or tax incentives for economic development. The Party Line’s goal is to offer a provocative, intelligent look at the issues and players behind the action; a view that ultimately offers the necessary insight for Carolina voters to hold public servants more accountable.

Education Was Cut! No, It's Increased! Which Is Right? Both

Now that the regular, or “long,” session of the NC General Assembly has come to an end, the reviews are coming in fast and furious, most notably broken down by partisan rank.

With opening salvos from the New York Times and the response by the Wall Street Journal’s columnist breaking into the liberal-conservative reactions, some of the most intense fights centered on the core feature of most state governments: The budget.

Both the left and the right have been utilizing figures to support their claims about the state’s $20.6 billion spending, 57% of which goes to education policies in three areas: K-12, community colleges, and the university system.

Those arguing the budget as cutting education use the figure of nearly $500 million as the result of the budget writers in crafting the total education budget.

Those arguing that the budget increases education spending use the figure of nearly $400 million in increased education spending across the three areas.

So which of the arguments and set of numbers are right? Well, actually, both.

To understand how education spending can be both cut and increased at the same time, a little background on how the figures coming about is needed, and it is important to know about each one in order to understand how these two views can be considered “right.”

In crafting the state’s budget, a “continuation budget” figure is first developed: this amount is “part of the state budget necessary to continue the current level of services when adjusted” for a variety of factors, such as “inflation, mandated rate increases … and operation of new facilities.” 

So what this figure tells policymakers and legislators is the amount of money needed to continue the level of services and operations, taking into account outside influences that may impact the funding.  Some would look at this figure, based on the previous state’s budget numbers, as the “ideal” if one was to continue the same level of state services that one had seen in the past and take into account outside factors.

Then we get the “governor’s recommended budget.” As the chief executive, it is his role to carry out the spending that the legislature puts into the state budget.

Finally, we get a “revised appropriations,” which is the legislature’s final budget figures for spending in the next fiscal year (running July 1 to June 30).  It’s also important to note that North Carolina crafts a “biennium” budget, meaning that this year’s legislation covers both the 2013-14 and 2014-15 fiscal year.

Overall, the just-passed state budget was at $20.603 billion for fiscal year 2013-14 and a projected $20.99 billion in 2014-15, an increase from the 2012-2013 amount of $20.087 billion that was spent.  In addition, the state legislature opted to spend more than the continuation budget and the governor’s recommended budget.

But when you begin to explore the major areas of the state’s budget — education, health & human services, justice & public safety, natural and economic resources, and general government — there are stark contrasts in the differences.

Taking the total education budget (which combines K-12, community colleges, and the university system for fiscal years 2013-14 and 2014-15) and using the 2012-13 actual spending (doubled) for all of education, we get the following:

So now we see where the editorial writers for the Charlotte Observer got their fact on the education cuts.  The “nearly $500 million cuts to education” argument centered on the difference between the “continuation budget” figure that combines the fiscal year 2013-14 and 2014-15 budgets into one, resulting in a combined continuation budget of $23.618 billion. 

But the legislature allocated a combined $23.136 billion, nearly $481 million less than the combined continuation budgets.  So yes, when looking at one budget figure compared to the enacted budget figure, there appears to be cuts.

So how can the conservative John Locke Foundation argue that there was an increase in education funding? 

When looking at the argument of “increased education spending,” the argument compares the single 2012-13 fiscal year spending amount of $11.072 billion to the $11.472 billion in the 2013-14 fiscal year, an increase of nearly $400 million.

Actually, the final total education figures for the 2012-13 fiscal year was $11.381 billion, resulting in about a $91 million increase when properly comparing the two fiscal years — but still an increase for this year’s budget, one could argue.

Was education funding cut in the new state budget, or was it increased?  Depending on how you look at the figures, the answer is yes to both.

As in so many policy debates nowadays (just look at the recent abortion legislation in terms of “restricting a woman’s right to legal abortions” versus “protecting the health of a woman getting an abortion”), the framing of the issue can make both sides correct.

The biggest problem for the average citizen is having the needed information on where both sides base their “facts.” But in this world of increased partisan shouting matches, it’s no wonder that many people discount both sides when such conflicting “$500 million cuts versus $400 million increases” are heard in policy debates.

Dr. Michael Bitzer is an associate professor of politics and history at Catawba College, where he also serves as the 2011-2012 Swink Professor for Excellence in Classroom Teaching and the chair of the department of history & politics. A native South Carolinian, he holds graduate degrees in both history and political science from Clemson University and The University of Georgiaââ