What a strange time it is in our legislature. Anger, acrimony and accusations abound. It seems as if there are no significant issues on which Republicans and Democrats could work together.
But there are — plenty of them. Among them is improving the poor condition of K-12 school buildings across the state. Compounding that challenge is the legislature's mandate for smaller classes, which increases the pressure to add classrooms.
Legislators from both parties recognize this problem. Rep. Craig Horn, a Republican leader on education issues, told teacher (and columnist) Justin Parmenter: “We have many school buildings that simply cannot support or even allow for modern teaching techniques or the application of much-needed technology. They are cramped, in need of basic repairs to walls, roofs and floors. Sanitation and even infestation is a constant challenge. These conditions severely impact both student and teacher.”
The state Department of Public Instruction compiled a list of projects totaling $8.1 billion. That led to a legislative proposal to ask voters in November for their approval to borrow $1.9 billion for school upgrades. Voters last approved statewide school bonds in 1996.
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The proposal initially met with broad support, The News & Observer's T. Keung Hui reported recently. Legislation calling for a November 2018 school bond referendum had both Republican and Democratic sponsors when it was filed in spring 2017.
This is a measure that could have made our schools better places to learn. It also could have been the rare piece of major legislation supported by a substantial number of Republicans and Democrats. It could have shown that lawmakers are capable of setting aside differences and of working together to solve our biggest problems.
But it's not going to happen. The legislature's Republican leaders decided against it. A spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger said Republicans wanted "to avoid saddling taxpayers with additional debt when priorities can be paid for through existing revenues and without borrowing money." The spokesman said next year's budget includes $241 million for school facilities, with much of that funding going to rural counties.
As for that mandate to lower class sizes, school boards and county commissions are on their own to figure that out. Trailers, anyone?
Poor Craig Horn. He hasn't received the memo. He keeps trying to build consensus and solve problems (imagine that!) but his hyper-partisan legislative leadership team won't let him.
Instead, Republicans are going to ram six proposed constitutional amendments through in this last week of the short session. Six!
Bad process leads to bad policy, and this is a constitutional train wreck waiting to happen. Any attempt to amend the state Constitution should be deliberate. In the last 20 years, the legislature has taken seven constitutional amendments to voters. These legislative leaders are rushing through two decades' worth of proposed amendments in one week.
This is the same leadership team that embarrassed itself last month by approving a revised 2018-19 budget without allowing for amendments in committee or on the floor. The revised budget was assembled behind closed doors and then presented for an up-or-down vote. This was the first time in the state's modern history such an approach was used. Even the Republican leadership's typical allies, such as the conservative Civitas Institute, called them out for that.
Rank-and-file Republicans know they shouldn't operate this way. When they were in the minority, Republicans said if they ran the place, they'd be open and inclusive. But their leaders have, once again, let them — and the state — down. Meanwhile, real problems fester.