Last updated: May 13. 2014 9:56AM - 807 Views
Steve Ford NC Council of Churches

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The motto of North Carolina’s General Assembly during the past few years could well have been something like “Never a dull moment!”

That’s especially been the case as the economy has muddled through various slumps, none so damaging as the Great Recession from which the state and nation still feel aftershocks in the job market. Setting state budget priorities, which for the legislature amounts to Job No. 1, is never more difficult than when the economy tanks. A scandal here and there – a Democratic House speaker went to prison on bribery-related charges – lent a touch of train wreck-style morbid fascination.

Surely there was plenty of excitement last year as conservative Republicans, working in league with a Republican governor, gained complete control of the legislature for the first time in more than a century and set about putting their stamp on how state government operates.

That stamp featured, most prominently, tax cuts mainly benefitting higher-income earners and corporations. It included an easing of regulations on industry and an unwavering hostility to the Obama administration’s health care reforms, meaning a federally financed expansion of Medicaid to cover an additional 319,000 North Carolinians who lack health insurance was rejected.

It included an election law overhaul making it harder for some people – notably, people in various Democratic-leaning socioeconomic groups – to vote. It included measures designed to strengthen charter schools, private schools and other education alternatives while undercutting the teachers on whom public schools and most North Carolina students depend.

Schools, teachers pounded

When the state’s graduated personal income tax was cut and flattened, that meant spending had to be trimmed to keep the budget in balance. The hammer came down in particular on education, the budget’s largest category. Hundreds of teacher assistants lost their jobs, class sizes were allowed to increase and teachers had to go without raises for the fifth year out of six – pay stagnation that has pushed the state’s teacher salary average down to 46th in the country.

Legislators floated an ill-conceived plan to strip teachers of their modest job security commonly known as tenure and put most of them on year-to-year contracts. Only those teachers designated by their districts as among the top 25 percent in performance – according to standards yet to be defined, and good luck with that – would be eligible for four-year contracts and $500-a-year raises over that period.

People caught in the recession-driven job squeeze and forced into the ranks of the long-term unemployed were told, more or less, to look harder for work and get off the dole. Legislators decided to spurn extended federal unemployment benefits and to cut the state’s own benefits.

All in all, these were policy choices that pushed North Carolina out of the moderate political mainstream and into the ranks of states where low-tax, small-government ideology trumps both compassion and common sense. The Council of Churches was pleased to lend its support to the NAACP-led social justice movement that bloomed in response to the new conservative agenda and that drew national attention with its Moral Monday protests.

So here we are again. The state House and Senate convene May 14 for their every-other-year “short” session. The session’s basic purpose is to adjust the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 – a document pre-approved last year – to keep it balanced in light of revenue trends and a fresh look at spending needs. To put it bluntly, with tax collections down and spending promises up, this won’t be pretty.

Monday festivities

Meanwhile, Moral Mondays are scheduled to resume as well, with participants gathering in Raleigh on May 19. Last spring and summer, these events drew thousands, including more than 900 people arrested during those weeks after they defied orders to leave the Legislative Building.

Will peaceful civil disobedience remain a part of the protesters’ game plan? Will authorities – who’ve had only mixed success in prosecuting those arrested – continue to take a hard line? Will Republican legislators who regarded their critics with indifference ranging to outright contempt be more willing to engage constituents on the issues? No, the moments shouldn’t be dull.

Teachers were well-represented in the 2013 Moral Monday ranks, and if anyone got their message across, it was they. Gov. Pat McCrory in February offered the first relief on the pay front, proposing that beginning teachers and those in the classroom for fewer than 10 years would all be making $35,000 annually by the 2015-16 school year. That’s up from today’s puny starting salary of $30,800 (counties that can afford to do so typically offer modest supplements). The plan’s two-year price tag would be $200 million.

Now McCrory has raised the stakes, saying he wants to give the rest of the state’s teachers a 2 percent raise this year, along with $1,000 raises for other state employees. At the same time, a new approach to setting teacher pay would be tested in eight school districts. That plan envisions “career pathways” enabling the most successful teachers to boost their salaries by as much as $20,000. Including the raises for junior teachers proposed earlier, McCrory’s pay package would add $265 million to his budget proposal for 2014-15, to be unveiled as the legislative session gets under way.

Money mysteries

Where’s the money coming from? That’s where this session could become as interesting as the latest tangled tale from Hollywood. For dramatic effect, it even includes some subplots, as McCrory tries to recover from a lackluster first year in office and position himself for a 2016 reelection campaign, and as House Speaker Thom Tillis seeks to broaden his appeal as the Republican challenger to Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan.

The state’s money experts now say that revenues for the remainder of the current fiscal year, ending June 30, will come up $445 million short of what’s needed to keep the budget balanced. Tax cuts that were expected to reduce revenues by some $500 million over the course of 2014 evidently went even further as they took effect.

The likely upshot is that “rainy day” funds will have to be tapped while spending continues to be dialed back. Lagging tax collections are projected to continue into the next fiscal year as well, with a shortfall estimated at $191 million compared with revenues anticipated when the two-year budget was put together.

And amidst plugging those budget holes, legislators are being asked to come up with another $265 million to raise teachers’ salaries? The same legislators who’ve been inclined to treat teachers like dirt? McCrory, and even Tillis, can only hope that their Republican allies don’t leave them hanging out to dry while teachers and other public education advocates batter them with the obvious facts – that tax cuts together with higher teacher salaries don’t compute. At least, not without savaging other parts of the state budget and the services they support.

For decades in North Carolina, under Democratic and Republican governors alike, the mainstream notion was that even when the economy went soft and tax revenues felt the strain, the state would not pull the plug on spending for its schools, its universities, its programs to advance public health and to protect the environment. That lent to budget-writing both wisdom and an underlying fairness, especially a fairness toward those among us who struggle with the disadvantages of poverty and for whom a strong education system is crucial.

Is that same North Carolina still recognizable, in the wake of the conservative takeover in Raleigh? What happens in the capital over the next few weeks will help provide the answer.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches.

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