This NC legislative session should stay short and focused

May 13, 2014 

The best hope North Carolinians have is that the “short session” of the General Assembly that begins today will be uneventful. A quiet session would be a blessing after a long session in which Republicans really geared up an agenda that has hurt many families and institutions in this state.

What a show that session was: hits to public education, to environmental regulation, to the University of North Carolina System.

Expand Medicaid to help 500,000 more North Carolinians with the federal government paying? No. Maintain unemployment benefits so families could keep their homes and protect themselves while getting extended federal benefits? No.

And while they were at it, the honorables curbed voting access with a voter ID law and by trimming early voting and other benefits because they thought those things gave too much access to democracy to Democratic voters. That got the state a lot of unwanted national attention and damaged North Carolina’s reputation as, relatively speaking, a progressive Southern state.

And it took GOP lawmakers, who are running the legislature with an arrogance they used to say was a hallmark of Democrats, too long to realize that the state Department of Health and Human Services has been in chaos under Secretary Aldona Wos. Food stamp delays. Medicaid confusion. High staff turnover. Only a CEO who happened to be a major GOP contributor could keep the job. Wos is and Wos did.

Unfortunately, Republican tax cuts have contributed to a revenue shortfall they will have to fix this session, Democrats say. The shortage is estimated at $445 million (though it may be more).

To make the fix, it’s likely GOP leaders will cash in the state’s rainy day fund and rifle through the budget for any surplus dollars like a man searching his couch for loose change. But of course that’s not recurring money, so it will be a one-time solution. And the tax cuts will likely create more problems by forcing another round of cuts in state programs and departments that have been starved for funds since the start of the Great Recession.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory has promised pay increases for teachers. The state ranks 46th in the country in average teacher pay, and even the proposed increases won’t change that substantially. But McCrory and those legislative leaders who have bashed teachers relentlessly now realize that public education is important to state residents. Their attacks on the system and the people who make it have backfired.

Last session, Republicans made tax cuts a priority over improving teacher pay, but now they say teachers are the top priority. But the lost revenue will make it hard for Republicans to put significant money behind their new-found appreciation of teachers.

Meanwhile, this session will have another money problem. Though Thom Tillis is running for the U.S. Senate and raising money from special interests, the House speaker is going to remain in charge. He’ll be gone a lot on the campaign trail, and he’ll be milking special interest groups that might have proposals before the General Assembly for contributions.

While raising funds for a federal campaign while serving in the legislature is legal, it is not appropriate. Tillis should have resigned the speaker’s post long ago. He may wish he had if Republicans veer off the focus on the budget for which the short session is designated and make more mischief on social issues. A runaway conservative House could alienate the mainstream voters Tillis is going to need in the general election against incumbent U.S. Sen Kay Hagan, a Democrat.

The session is going to be short, but not sweet. And it is going to present Republicans with a yeoman’s task on the state budget for which they do not appear to be prepared.

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