An NC budget aimed at election, not the future — The News & Observer



An NC budget aimed at election, not the future

Published: August 2, 2014

Ostensibly, the $21 billion state budget formally approved by lawmakers Saturday is a spending plan for the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2015. But what the budget really extends to is a different and much closer date – Nov. 4, Election Day.

The budget was built around one overwhelming political goal for lawmakers seeking re-election and especially for House Speaker Thom Tillis, who will face a statewide electorate as the GOP’s nominee for U.S. Senate. That goal was to approve a pay raise for the state’s 95,000 public school teachers. With teacher pay near the lowest in the nation, Republicans dreaded going before voters without having addressed the problem.

The goal was accomplished, at least for the purposes of campaign claims. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger was hailing the budget’s inclusion of a teacher raise averaging 7 percent as “the largest teacher pay raise in state history.”

Tillis joined in declaring it a major step forward. “It’s the most significant positive message we’ve made to education in decades,” he said. “We worked hard to make sure we could deliver the promises we made.”

But that Republican claim comes with serious caveats. For one, the percentage is reached by folding funds used for longevity pay – a year-end bonus for veteran teachers based on time of service – into the overall raise package. If a teacher gets a 7 percent raise but loses a 3.2 percent longevity payment, it’s not a 7 percent raise. And teachers lose longevity pay for good, while all other state employees retain the benefit.

Finally, most of the boost goes to the newest and lowest-paid teachers while veteran teachers gain little, and the pay scale tops out at $50,000 – $3,000 less than the current schedule.

When it comes to math, teachers are a tough group to fool. Most will see this raise for what it is: a grudging and belated pay increase inflated by shifting benefits and dressed up as a campaign talking point. Mark Jewell, a vice president with the N.C. Association of Educators, said, “From what we’re hearing from educators across the state, they are livid about this salary proposal.”

Beyond the smoke and mirrors aspects, there’s also a serious issue about how the pay increase will be sustained. The $282 million cost of the raise is supported in part by extra money from the lottery and one-time sources – reserve funds and federal grants. With the GOP’s excessive tax cuts projected to cost the state $700 million this year and a total of $5.3 billion over five years – $800 million more than originally projected – it’s not assured the state will be able to afford the raise next year, let alone increase it to lift North Carolina salaries from embarrassing to attractive.

Some of the best aspects of the state budget are what it didn’t do to teachers. It dropped the Senate proposal to take away teacher tenure – the basic right to due process in firing situations – and it didn’t go forward with the Senate’s plan to support a bigger teacher raise by eliminating 7,400 teacher assistants.

This is a budget drawn up by panicked legislators on the eve of midterm elections. That’s reflected in the rush to do something for teachers by cutting of health and welfare benefits for poor people who don’t have much of a voice in elections. The budget reduces subsidized child care for the poor and cuts Medicaid payments to hospitals.

Gov. Pat McCrory, who said the budget bill reflects his priorities, said he will sign it.

Lawmakers put off two major issues: cleaning up Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds and reforming Medicaid. It’s unclear when they will be taken up, but the Senate appears unwilling to deal with either issue until November after the voters pass judgment on what Republican lawmakers have done so far.

What’s most notable about this budget isn’t the teacher pay raise or its shaky revenue foundation as the costs of tax cuts rise. It’s the absolute lack of vision of a better North Carolina.

This budget does not build up the state’s main engine for advancement, the University of North Carolina. It doesn’t support major new public projects or pay for ways to help the unemployed or underemployed. It has no ideas for helping the state’s weakest and most vulnerable people.

What it does, Republicans hope, is pay their way past Election Day.