Commentary

It’s been about a month since North Carolina’s legislature wrapped up the short summer session and headed home to begin campaigning ahead of November’s election.

Former Governor Jim Hunt writes in a must-read editorial that lawmakers need to stop boasting about the modest pay raise afforded to teachers this year, and worry about whether North Carolina will be able to attract and keep high-quality teachers in the future.

The four-term governor notes in Saturday’s News & Observer:

Jim_HuntIt’s not just poor pay, but working conditions for teachers have deteriorated with rising class sizes, fewer textbooks and supplies, cuts in teaching assistants and political leadership that too often disparages teachers.

While both political parties deserve to share some of the blame, the fact is that as our economy improves, the current state leadership continues to keep our public schools on a bare subsistence diet and makes education policies that are an affront to teachers, especially experienced ones.

Teachers are a smart bunch. The recent pay raises have been sold as 7 percent – but that’s not what many teachers are seeing in their paychecks. Young teachers are getting a modest raise, but those veteran teachers who have worked and sacrificed to give our children a good education have seen the longevity pay they counted on abolished. And the new salary schedule treats them very unfairly. A teacher in Clayton wrote that she got a raise of only $47.60 per month. One Wake County teacher told WRAL-TV that when she saw her increase was only 1.39 percent she “sat down and cried.”

Not surprisingly, many North Carolina teachers are voting against education cuts with their feet. States like Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and Texas are actively recruiting them. (The Houston School District just hired 28.) Other teachers are retiring early, and many top teachers are going into better paying jobs in business and science.

I think we should be especially alarmed by the message current policies and low teacher pay is sending to the young people of North Carolina who should be our “future teachers.”

Enrollment in Schools of Education on our University of North Carolina campuses has dropped precipitously. I received my undergraduate degree in the School of Education at North Carolina State University. Over the last several years new enrollment in my alma mater’s program has gone down every single year – a drop of 52 percent in four years.

At UNC-Greensboro (my teacher mother’s alma mater) total undergraduate enrollment in the School of Education has gone down 44 percent in the last six years.

Where will our future teachers come from? Will we even have enough to teach our kids?

Once North Carolina had a Teaching Fellows Program that attracted “the best and brightest” of our students with four-year scholarships if they promised to teach for four years or more. Now the legislature has abolished it.

I believe the status of our public schools and teachers is the No. 1 concern of North Carolina’s resident today. Some say we don’t have the resources and can’t do any better. I know that we can.

Republican Gov. Jim Holshouser believed we could when he supported the establishment of public kindergarten in 1973 and raised teacher pay to 27th in the nation.

In 1996 I campaigned for governor on a platform of raising teacher pay to the national average. In 1997 we built a bipartisan coalition with support from Democrats and Republicans, business leaders, education advocates and teachers to support the Excellent Schools Act. And over the next four years we increased teacher pay by almost 33 percent, raising pay to the national average and 20th in the country.

It is my hope that when the General Assembly convenes in 2015, there will be a new sense of cooperation and a firm commitment to do three things:

First, respect veteran teachers by restoring longevity pay and giving them the minimum 5.5 percent raise they were sold.

Second, increase salaries for all teachers, moving North Carolina to the national average in the next four years.

Third, improve working conditions for our teachers and send the message that North Carolina values its teachers.

That will show the real respect that North Carolina teachers deserve.

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Commentary

As Governor Pat McCrory travels the state this week touting a billion dollar bond proposal for highway improvements and transit investments over the next 25 years, the Charlotte Observer reminds readers that the state is facing a serious revenue problem.

The editorial board doesn’t hold back in Thursday’s column entitled: Become Alabama in 12 easy steps.

Here’s an excerpt:

(News item: State revenues in North Carolina decreased by more than $200 million in July and August, the first two months of the fiscal year, when compared with the same months in 2013. That’s also $50 million short of state budget projections, the (Raleigh) News & Observer reports.)

Twelve Easy Steps to Becoming Alabama:alabama-close

1) Slash taxes, as N.C. Republicans did last year when they cut both the corporate tax rate and the personal income tax rate, with the most significant benefits going to wealthy North Carolinians.

2) Tell citizens this is tax “reform,” not simply tax cuts.

3) Explain, too, that this will help “job creators” grow our state’s economy, despite the fact that history shows there is little to no link between tax cuts and economic growth. The reason for this is that businesses add jobs when they believe doing so will help them grow and make more money. They do not need a tax break to want to make more money, and they won’t add jobs until it’s economically advantageous to do so, regardless of tax breaks.

4) Do not explain that last part to voters.

5) Cut spending, as N.C. lawmakers have had to do to offset the hundreds of millions in lost tax revenue. These cuts can be made in a number of ways, such as trimming health and welfare benefits for poor people, or cutting unemployment benefits for those without a job.

6) Subtly blame these poor and unemployed people for needing government “handouts.”

7) Bonus Tip: One especially fertile target for spending is education. Freeze higher education pay and cut education budgets, despite increases in enrollment. Cut the money that’s spent per student in classrooms and raise teacher pay only after it’s politically destructive to ignore it. Then cut critical education needs like teacher assistants to help pay for those salaries, and fund the rest of the permanent pay increase with one-time only sources of state revenue.

8) Hope no one notices that last thing.

9) Wave off signs of trouble, as new state budget director Lee Roberts did this week when asked about the state’s alarming two-month revenue shortfall. Roberts said it was too early to worry, despite the N.C. Budget and Tax Center estimating that revenue will be down $300 million in 2015 and at least a half-billion dollars next year, when new tax cuts go into effect.

Read the full editorial online at The Charlotte Observer.

News

New polling data by American Insights shows Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan with a nine point lead over Republican challenger Thom Tillis among likely voters this November. Elon University’s poll shows the race closer – with Hagan enjoying a 45 to 41 percent margin over Tillis, with nine percent of likely voters saying they would vote for someone else. (Libertarian Party candidate Sean Haugh will be on the ballot, but was not mentioned by name in the Elon poll.)

Catawba College political scientist Dr. Michael Bitzer says what’s interesting from his perspective is that the tens of millions of dollars in advertising that has flooded the airwaves has really had little impact on voters.

Bitzer joined us last weekend on News & Views with Chris Fitzsimon to discuss how Hagan and Tillis connected with voters in the most recent debate, and how undecided voters may ultimately decide how they will vote based on their impressions of the N.C. General Assembly and Congress.

What impact could Governor Pat McCrory have on the race?  Check out today’s Fitzsimon File.

To hear our full radio interview with Dr. Michael Bitzer, click below:

For an excerpt, click here:
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News
Wos-and-Nichol

DHHS Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos (left), and Gene Nichol of the UNC School of Law (right)

If you missed it over the weekend, there are two-must read stories on where North Carolina stands in expanding Medicaid.

The Winston Salem Journal’s Richard Craver had a sit down interview with state DHHS Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos, in which Wos said she would “soon” be recommending expanding the state Medicaid program to Gov. Pat McCrory.

So, how soon is soon? Craver writes:

“Everyone needs to know that Medicaid expansion is complicated,” Wos said, slowing down to pronounce each syllable in “complicated.” “There is no flipping of a switch.”

She said physical and behavioral health care system expansion must come first so the system is able to absorb additional participants.

“Our state has to have industry adapt to providing enough health-care providers, and that is a process,” Wos said.

Wos said a key element of building DHHS’ foundation is “getting new skills in finance, economists and actuaries, that are absolutely critical to our organization.”

“If I am allowed to continue on this path, I guarantee you we will have that foundation. The rest of the process is building upon that foundation with standards, with flexibility built in.”

“We’re not too far away. Soon.”

Gene Nichol,  director of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity,  – who does not speak for UNC – wrote in Saturday’s Raleigh News & Observer that the longer the state goes without expanding Medicaid, the more lives are lost.

Here’s an excerpt from Nichol’s opinion piece:

‘The consequences for poor people of being excluded from health care coverage are real and dramatic. Losses in health, losses in emotional well-being, losses in financial capacity, losses in opportunity. And, for some, it’s worse.

A recent Harvard study indicates a significant number of our sisters and brothers will experience premature and preventable deaths as a result of the General Assembly’s rejection of Medicaid expansion. Many “low-income women will forgo breast and cervical cancer screenings, diabetics will (fail to receive) necessary medications,” blood pressure pills and other preventative measures will be denied, “diagnosis and treatment of depression” will be diminished.

As a result, the scholars estimate, the number of Tar Heels who will perish at the hand of our politics may well exceed a thousand a year. The wound inflicted by the Medicaid vote is grievous, deep and sometimes mortal.

I’ve wondered how it feels to cast a vote that means thousands might needlessly die. I can’t get my arms around it. Looking in the mirror must become tougher duty. I can see not wanting to dwell on it.

But when you make a decision that means people may lose their lives, surely you have to do more than offer empty slogans and nonsense-laden talking points to defend it. Surely you have to show you’ve done something more than merely taken instruction, more than mindlessly repeated what you’ve been told – like some malfunctioning teleprompter.

At least you ought to show that you’ve thought it through for yourself. That you’re not just siding with one gang or the other or proving your antipathy for various adversaries.

When politics becomes lethal, responsibility ascends.’

Read the full story in the Winston-Salem Journal here, and the full Point of View column by Nichol here in the News & Observer.

(Note: Nichol is a board member of the N.C. Justice Center, the larger anti-poverty non-profit that N.C. Policy Watch is a part of).
News

Governor Pat McCrory issued a video press release Friday afternoon announcing his decision not to call the Legislature back for a special session.mc-912b

“It would be counterproductive and a waste of taxpayer money to bring the General Assembly back when there is no agreement in place on issues already voted on. And after a lengthy session they need a break, and frankly, I need a break from them,” the governor quipped.

“However, if a major job recruitment effort develops and it requires legislative support, I will bring lawmakers back to Raleigh.”

Rep. Susi Hamilton (D-New Hanover) and Rep. Ted Davis (R-New Hanover) wrote to McCrory in late August requesting a special session so legislators could pass an economic development bill, extend film tax credits, and reconsider a $20 million catalyst or closing fund.

State Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker also backed the idea of the special session. Decker told the state’s economic development board last month she had already heard that several TV shows and film projects may be backing out of North Carolina because of the changes to the tax credit program for the film industry.

Americans for Prosperity had urged McCrory to ignore those appeals and not have lawmakers return to Raleigh this fall.