RALEIGH — A day before the General Assembly returns, Democratic legislative leaders on Tuesday attempted to raise the stakes in the teacher pay debate that is expected to dominate the session.
Sen. Dan Blue and Rep. Larry Hall, the respective minority party leaders, called the situation “an emergency” and called for Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP legislative leaders to put forth a plan to raise salaries to the national average.
Yet neither were willing to outline a way to pay for the idea, dodging multiple questions about the topic in a press conference at the statehouse. The state’s teachers currently make an average $45,737, ranking No. 46 in the nation. The national average is $56,103.
Hall called McCrory’s plan on teacher pay hikes – a 2 percent across the board increase and a big boost for starting teachers – a measure that only “kicks the can down the road.”
“We are facing a teacher pay crisis for sure and more teachers are going to leave if we don’t do better,” Hall said. “What’s the governor’s answer to this? It’s going to be a pitiful 2 percent pay raise and then what?”
“This is an emergency,” he added. “We need significant pay raises now for our teachers. ... We need a dedicated plan that reaches that goal that makes us equal to the national average.”
Hall and Blue blamed the Republican tax cuts in the 2013 session for limiting state money for education but took a stance against rolling them back or increasing taxes to pay for teacher salary hikes.
McCrory is scheduled to release his budget proposal Wednesday and outline how to pay for his pay hikes.
Democratic leaders also pushed Republicans to address the state’s coal ash spill but didn’t offer a specific plan on what needs to happen.
The Dan River spill earlier this year at a Duke Energy plan near Eden put a spotlight on the retention ponds that hold the power-plant waste, often near water sources.
Republicans and Democrats are promising to address the matter but the approaches differ.
The problem began years ago, when Democrats controlled the lawmaking process, but Hall and Blue deflected questions about whether their party shouldered any responsibility for the spill.
“It’s a crisis,” Blue said. “We need to address it right now, regardless of when it began, regardless of who may have been in the governor’s mansion or who may have been in the legislature when it began.”
Hall echoed the sentiment, calling the retrospective look at how the state came to this situation “a finger pointing game.”
“We are not here to play games, we’re here to address this emergency problem,” he said.
The sentiment doesn’t match Hall’s recent statements pointing the finger at McCrory’s administration on the issues surrounding the spill. He recently demanded McCrory return any campaign contributions from Duke Energy.
Josh Ellis, a McCrory spokesman, took issue with the Democrats’ double talk.
“Governor McCrory is seeking solutions instead of playing political games,” he said. “It’s ironic that Sen. Blue and Rep. Hall are making these claims given that they voted for legislation that exempted coal ash from tougher environmental standards and weakened the state’s ability to monitor coal ash dams. We’re glad they are reconsidering those positions and look forward to working together to solve a complex problem that is more than 60 years old.”