McCrory promises pay raise for teachers, scrutiny of DHHS lbonner@newsobserver.comJanuary 21, 2014 

  • On the issues

    Gov. Pat McCrory touched on a number of priorities for 2014, many of which are holdovers from his first year in office. Here’s a look at a few:

    Energy exploration: McCrory wants to push forward with energy exploration through hydraulic fracturing and offshore drilling for oil and gas. Acknowledging it is moving slower than he expected, the governor said he will emphasize this effort in 2014.

    Dog breeders: First lady Ann McCrory put an emphasis on regulating dog breeders who run what are called “puppy mills.” The governor said he, too, wants to see the law passed this year. The effort hit roadblocks in the state Senate last year.

    State buildings: Dubbed “Rebuilding North Carolina,” McCrory is looking to revamp state buildings to make them safer and healthier for state employees, saying the move will increase productivity. He did not put a price tag on the goal nor outline a way to pay for it but promised more details by July.

    Art on the Move: This initiative, announced a year ago, will add art to highways and bridges to add new life to infrastructure that “often distracts (from) the visual beauty of North Carolina,” the governor said. He did not outline a cost of the program but promised more details soon.

    College substance abuse: A new initiative will try to reduce underage drinking on college campuses and provide help to those with addictions. “We have a responsibility to protect our students on (state) college campuses,” McCrory said. More specifics are forthcoming, he said.

— Gov. Pat McCrory made a pledge to teachers Tuesday: A pay increase is coming.

The Republican governor lamented the state’s near-bottom average teacher salary, noting that educators received just one raise in the past five years.

“That is unacceptable to me, unacceptable to the legislature and unacceptable to the people of North Carolina,” McCrory said. “And that’s why we will get teacher raises done this year.”

McCrory offered no details about his proposal and did not say whether all state workers would see a pay bump.

The promise was one of a lengthy list of priorities McCrory outlined at a news conference at the Executive Mansion. Surrounded by his Cabinet, he discussed:

• Opening the state to fracking and offshore drilling as a way to boost the economy.

• Fixing the state’s troubled health agency.

•  Revamping a costly Medicaid system.

Much of the list rehashed his 2013 goals, an acknowledgment that a host of controversies and an icy relationship with top state lawmakers contributed to an incomplete first year in office.

“There is nothing in here that would say to me, ‘Stop the presses, this is a governor who wants a legacy kind of issue,’” said David McLennan, a William Peace University political science professor. “It’s pretty much managerial kind of stuff.”

McCrory and lawmakers are rehabbing their relationship and starting the year with more cooperation. McCrory said he is dovetailing his educational goals with Republican legislative leaders and hopes to a reach an agreement soon.

Republican Sen. Jerry Tillman, a key education budget writer, said the effort, which began months ago, will lead to “some significant pay reform and pay increases.”

“There has been pretty much an agreement that we have not been able to do enough for teachers in recent years,” Tillman said in an interview Tuesday.

McCrory said he wanted to boost starting salaries for teachers and pay the best teachers more.

Missing details

But he would not provide details about the size of the potential pay increase and refused to endorse a plan to move North Carolina toward the national average, as education advocates such as former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt have pitched in recent weeks.

“The big question is where are the details, and how will it be paid for,” McLennan said. “The real issue to me is what does the General Assembly leadership want.”

Democrats questioned the Republican focus on offering pay increases in an election year, particularly after cutting money for education in the 2013 session.

“Sooner or later, Gov. McCrory is going to learn that voters understand the difference between his record and rhetoric,” said Senate Democratic leader Martin Nesbitt of Asheville.

McCrory and lawmakers also are trying to find answers to the state’s beleaguered Department of Health and Human Services, the source of major controversies under Secretary Aldona Wos.

Last week, a group of doctors sued DHHS and its contractors over problems with a new Medicaid claims system. Needy people have gone hungry because of problems with another state software program. The pile of unprocessed food stamp applications in the state led the federal government to threaten the state with financial sanctions last month. The state violated federal privacy laws of nearly 50,000 children when it sent their insurance cards to incorrect addresses last month.

Under an effort first announced a year ago to focus on government efficiency, McCrory once again promised “a major review” of the state agency.

“As I look at DHHS, we’re asking the question, ‘Is it too big to succeed?’ ” McCrory said.

The scope and functions of DHHS have changed over the years. Most recently in 2011 when Republican lawmakers added prekindergarten to its list of responsibilities.

Fixing Medicaid

State leaders also periodically talk about splitting Medicaid, the government insurance program for low-income children and their parents, the elderly and the disabled, from the rest of DHHS.

McCrory did not indicate where the review might lead, but he said the state would be asking for “outside expertise.”

Rep. Nelson Dollar, chief budget writer in the state House, agreed DHHS is a “challenging department,” but breaking off sections into separate agencies wouldn’t be easy. Medicaid, for example, is interlaced with other services such as mental health.

“All these functions need to coordinate and need to work together,” said Dollar, a Cary Republican.

As the department that runs Medicaid is undergoing review, the administration also will attempt to convince the legislature to make major changes in the insurance program. “You’ve got to go on a parallel track,” McCrory said.

McCrory said he wants changes to Medicaid that put “patients first,” reward providers for healthy outcomes, and build on “what is already working in the state.” He left open the possibility of expanding the program under the federal health care law in the future but reiterated that now is not the time.

His administration and an advisory committee have considered several iterations on the theme of Medicaid managed care, but McCrory didn’t say what form his administration’s proposal would take. “There might not be one solution fits all for the entire state,” he said.

Getting a consensus on changes among all interest groups will be “one of our greatest challenges,” McCrory said.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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