RALEIGH — Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who took office five months ago promising to shake up the status quo after 20 years of Democratic rule, saw his change agenda pick up momentum Wednesday.
The state House began moving his plan to turn the Department of Commerces economic development functions over to a nonprofit corporation. The legislature also gave final approval to the first rewrite of the states highway funding formula in a quarter of a century.
McCrory also tasked the states education leadership to come up with a major plan to improve North Carolinas public schools in time for the 2014 legislature next May.
The governor and administration officials couched all three initiatives as efforts to address North Carolinas persistently high unemployment rate of 8.9 percent.
Unlike some of his earlier decisions such as his support for curtailing unemployment benefits and his opposition to expanding Medicaid McCrorys proposals received broad bipartisan support Wednesday.
At times, McCrory seems to have taken a back seat to the legislature on such major issues as proposals to overhaul the state tax system. But on Wednesday, the governor put his stamp on legislation.
In one of the most striking changes, a state House Commerce Committee approved the administrations plan to privatize the states job recruitment functions.
Modeled after a similar program in Indiana, the nonprofit corporation is designed to move at the speed of business, Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker said.
Rep. Tom Murry, a Republican from Morrisville, the bills chief House sponsor, said the measure is designed to help bring down the unemployment rate by aggressively pursuing industry, raising money from private sources, and working closely with local communities.
We have a state rich with resources but plagued by high unemployment, Murry said. We have got to change the way we do business to help existing businesses grow and help new businesses relocate to our state and expand and create jobs.
Eight geographic zones
The bill would eliminate the N.C. Economic Development Board and create eight geographic zones in the state. Murry said there were multiple safeguards built into the system for protecting taxpayer money.
Rep. Yvonne Holley, a Democrat from Raleigh, said the bill did not make specific provisions for firms owned by minorities or women. Decker said the nonprofit would benefit such businesses.
The measure passed the House Commerce Committee with only a few dissenting votes, and with no real Democratic opposition expressed during the discussion. It is expected to go the House floor next week. A similar bill has already passed the Senate.
Meanwhile, the legislature gave final approval to McCrorys comprehensive transportation overhaul, which promises to award projects more on data and less on politics; kills several proposed toll road projects; and favors highways over rail, transit, bike and pedestrian projects.
The measure, which passed with broad bipartisan support, is the first rewrite of the highway formula since the 1989 Highway Trust Fund Act.
Under the new formula, 40 percent of all transportation construction money ($600 million) would be spent for projects of statewide importance, with an emphasis on creating jobs and cutting traffic congestion. Another 30 percent ($450 million) would be divided among seven regions according to population.
After months of hard work with Transportation Secretary Tony Tata, we developed the Strategic Mobility Formula, which would mean more projects and more jobs, McCrory said in a statement. Adopting this major reform make sense. More jobs make sense. More transportation projects make sense.
Also on Wednesday, McCrory set in motion his efforts to improve public education in the state.
Appearing before the states tops education leaders, the so-called Education Cabinet, McCrory and his aides outlined a year-long effort to develop a detailed plan to improve education. The plan is to set up task forces with deadlines and public hearings that will ultimately develop recommendations to the legislature when it returns for its 2014 session.
Although there were few details, Eric Guckian, McCrorys senior education adviser, laid out what he called five pathways for prosperity, jobs and growth in the state.
Those included closer coordination between schools and businesses in producing the workplace skills that are needed; providing better pay for good teachers; making schools a place for innovation; emphasizing early childhood programs so that children are ready to learn when they go to school; an aggressive charter school environment, and making sure schools are cost effective.
North Carolinas brand
McCrory said he is also looking to develop a brand that he can sell to student and teachers and businesses that may be considering relocating to North Carolina. He also wants to both measure student results, while at the same time cut down on the amount of duplicative testing.
There is no doubt in my mind that we are giving too many tests, McCrory said in an interview. We are hindering the ability of our teachers to do our jobs.
Hes also looking at better ways to use technology in the schools.
But while McCrory talked about the need for higher teacher pay, his budget included only a 1 percent raise for teachers who now rank 48th in the country in salaries.
At the Education Cabinet meeting, Tom Ross, the president of the University of North Carolina system, also noted that it was getting more difficult to hold on to faculty, who have not received raises for several years.
We have to build the economy so we have money to pay our teachers and our professor and faculty members, McCrory said in an interview. We are in a catch-22. We have to grow the economy. Some of the policies we are initiating through the legislature, hopefully, will have a long-term impact to build the economy and provide more revenue for good teachers.