Governors must lead. Governors, a 16-year veteran of the office used to say, know what they want to do, how to achieve their goals and how to get others to support their ideas. Jim Hunt had it right, and he pushed hard to elevate North Carolina’s standing in things like teacher pay and scientific initiatives and offered a host of other bold ideas.
Staff members changed periodically over Hunt’s four terms, and many said the boss was so energetic about getting the job done that he just wore them out.
There’s no danger of that so far in the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory. His budget stays the same old course: not much new spending on things to benefit average North Carolinians, modest increases in pay for some teachers, but nothing that will prevent a coming teacher shortage as other states continue to pay much more, another cut for the University of North Carolina system.
Critics have it right. North Carolina has rebounded to some extent from the Great Recession, although too many people remain underemployed, and the state’s unemployment rate, while declining, is a bit deceptive because of the large number of people who simply gave up on finding work and dropped out of what is counted as the state’s workforce.
But a rebound ought to offer the governor a chance to invest in needs, from really meaningful boosts in teacher pay to more for infrastructure improvements on bridges, for example. Instead, McCrory’s budget director, Lee Roberts, commented proudly: “This is a budget that is conservative and disciplined. It does not raise taxes. I’ll say that again. It does not raise taxes.”
A governor should have more pride in his state, and a stronger vision for charting a new course, instead of staying the current course, than to be able to boast that a budget doesn’t raise taxes.
One reason, as noted by Alexandra Forter Sirota of the N.C. Budget & Tax Center, is that McCrory used “budget tricks” to figure his spending plan.
“The ‘tough choices’ Gov. McCrory says he made were self-inflicted,” she said. “They come from tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthy and profitable corporations, meaning there is too little left to invest in education and other building blocks of a strong economy.”
Yes, the governor and Republican lawmakers have cut taxes for those in the upper realms of the income brackets (and taken away some breaks that helped the middle class) and for businesses. That and not addressing more substantial needs in public schools, for just one example, explain the governor’s austere budget.
He and General Assembly leaders apparently believe they’ll be cheered by working North Carolinians for just holding the line. But Hunt believed instead that people wanted to improve their state, to help their fellow citizens, to be ambitious when it came to initiatives in education.
A governor can get by without doing much. But that doesn’t build much of a legacy or build much of a state. North Carolina has long regarded itself as a leader of the “New South,” but Republican cutbacks in education, save for a teacher pay hike for some, and gaffes such as the anti-gay marriage amendment and the refusal to expand Medicaid, along with cuts in unemployment at the time when people needed benefits the most, have hurt the state’s image.
Holding the line, as McCrory’s budget does, holds a line that has slipped further and further back from other states in the region. The people of North Carolina have always been proud of being leaders, and they will be again. But they need their own elected leaders to show them the way, not just stand still.