Say this much for the leaders of the North Carolina Senate and House: When they make up their minds on a course of action, they don’t mess around.
The General Assembly was in only the second full week of its 2014 session. But already the Senate, marching quick-time to the cadence set by President Pro Tem Phil Berger, Republican of Eden, was passing its version of a state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
It’s a budget that significantly raises the stakes in the debate over teacher pay, offering raises that would trump those proposed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory while at the same time forcing teachers who want higher salaries to forgo their protections from arbitrary firing.
The House will have its say on the budget soon enough. Meanwhile, a majority of House members were eager to show their support for fracking, the controversial drilling technique that energy companies want to use to extract natural gas from the state’s shale belt centered in Lee, Chatham and Moore counties.
Republican Speaker Thom Tillis of Mecklenburg County let his chamber green-light a fracking bill sent over from the Senate and signaled his enthusiasm by voting for the bill on final passage – an unusual step for a speaker, who typically votes only when needed to break a tie.
The bill was promptly routed to Gov. McCrory, a fracking champion who envisions a homegrown natural gas industry creating jobs and enhancing energy independence. What remains unclear is whether North Carolina can regulate shale gas drilling sufficiently to avoid the water pollution problems that have afflicted communities in states such as Pennsylvania, where fracking already is widespread. In their rush to join the fracking parade, the legislature’s majority Republicans, with only a smattering of Democratic support, swept aside many suggestions for tightening the state’s rules and oversight, to environmental advocates’ understandable dismay.
When it comes to total spending, the Senate’s proposed budget of $21.2 billion is not far from McCrory’s, which would have outlays of $21.0 billion. (The Senate plan is set forth in Senate Bill 744.) But in case the governor expected that this year, his second in office, legislators would be more inclined to defer to his budget preferences than they were in 2013, the Senate was quick to disabuse him of that notion.
The Senate’s teacher pay plan is a case in point. All sides seem to have gotten the message that North Carolina’s average teacher salary ranking of 46th in the nation is not only a drag on the state’s ability to attract and retain well-qualified teachers but also has become a political issue best not ignored. The governor, for his part, focuses on improving salaries for newer teachers while testing a “career pathways” approach that could mean bigger raises for all teachers in years to come. He would cut elsewhere in the budget – notably in the University of North Carolina system – to help free up $102 million for the pay boosts.
Salaries and status
The Senate, with Berger conspicuously leading the effort, proposes larger and more immediate teacher pay raises, with a price tag for the coming fiscal year of $465 million. To see a pay jump, teachers would have to convert to “professional status,” meaning they’d give up their job protections commonly known as tenure. Or, they could keep their tenure, stay on “career status” and see their pay continue to stagnate.
Teachers certainly deserve to be treated as professionals, and it may be true, as Berger suggests, that professionals in most fields have precious few job protections at all. However, it’s reasonable to offer teachers some safeguards, considering the pressures they can come under when properly doing their jobs.
Just as an example, what if a teacher sees the need to crack down on a student who happens to be the spoiled child of well-connected parents? It’s not hard to imagine how the wrath of a school board member could rain down on administrators who then might look for excuses to cut the teacher loose. Shielding teachers from that kind of retaliation should be a given – not something they gain only if they’re willing to accept pay levels that everyone agrees are rotten.
Then there’s the question of how the Senate would fund its plan. In large part, it would do so by letting the jobs of all teacher assistants for grades 2 and 3 go up in smoke. That would save $233 million. But it would mean only kindergarten and first-grade teachers would have the benefit of an aide to help with classroom management – leaving teachers whose students are only a year or two older to cope on their own.
Senators said it’s not clear how valuable the second- and third-grade assistants actually are. True, maybe they’re even more vital in the earliest two grades. But when student attainment by the end of third grade is considered a solid predictor of later success, or lack of success, all teachers during those years should have enough help so that they can concentrate on their educational tasks and give students the individual attention they may need. Withholding money for these assistant positions seems shortsighted at best.
The Council of Churches favors robust public investment in the state’s public schools, colleges and universities because they are, or should be, pathways to opportunity for all North Carolinians, whatever their social and economic circumstances. The affluent and the fortunate may be able to buy their own tickets down that path. Others depend on being able to obtain a solid education that’s financed by taxpayers for the good of all.
The legislature’s Republican majorities, however, undermine that concept of investment for the good of all with their emphasis on tax-cutting. Changes enacted last year are expected to depress state revenues by some $500 million a year over the next few years. The rationale has to do with job creation – an iffy connection at best. Meanwhile, the relative tax burden falls lower on the income scale and important state services, including education, remain underfunded even as money gets shifted around to give teachers their overdue raises.
The Senate budget also takes aim at a program that has bedeviled governors and legislators of both parties – Medicaid, the health insurance program that covers many (not all) poor people as well as the disabled. The program’s funding is shared with the federal government, but the state’s ballooning expenses have confounded projections.
Senators want to throw a rope around Medicaid even as they’re agreeing to put more money into it to cover growth in enrollment and usage. One of their plans is to move the program out from under the Department of Health and Human Services, whose track record for Medicaid management has been notably weak. But beyond an organizational shuffle, the Senate is angling to drop several thousand people – in categories for the elderly, blind and disabled – from the Medicaid rolls, forcing them to find other ways to pay for health care.
Even with that change, supporters say, the state would still meet Medicaid’s federal guidelines for who must be covered. But it’s been to North Carolina’s credit that it has offered benefits exceeding what the feds require, allowing some people to obtain health care that otherwise they might well have had to do without. With the advent of the national Affordable Care Act, those people may have more options, as some senators suggest. But it will be too bad if an understandable effort to run a tighter Medicaid ship leaves a group of North Carolinians scrambling to climb aboard elsewhere, amid stormy seas.
Legislative sessions held in even-numbered years are known as short sessions, and the pace tends to be brisk. This year, judging from the first couple of weeks, the pace could fairly be described as break-neck. Yes, as in there’s a risk of falling and getting hurt.
Speed can serve the purposes of legislative leaders who don’t want to give likely opponents much time to figure out what’s happening and to mount a pushback. That seemed to be the pattern with the Senate budget, which was unveiled the evening of May 28, approved by committees on May 29, considered by the full chamber on May 30 and ramrodded to final passage after midnight, in the early morning of May 31. Senate Democrats, who’d been left out of the weeks-long budget drafting process, managed to send up a few warning flares about spending cuts that will make it harder for agencies to provide the services for which they’re responsible. But the Republicans, with plenty of votes and a full head of steam, were not to be deterred.
The same pattern held true with the fracking bill, S.B. 786. The bill had two days of Senate committee consideration. It went to the Senate floor on May 20 and was given final passage on May 22. The House took it up after the Memorial Day weekend on May 27. By May 30, it was on the governor’s desk. If opponents had one refrain as the bill whizzed by, it was “What’s the rush?”
In fact, the Senate had shown its impatience with fracking skeptics by declaring that drilling permits were to be issued starting July 1, 2015, whether or not regulatory rules were in place. That provision wasn’t expected to be well-received in the House, where fracking generally has been viewed with a bit more caution.
Caution, though, was swept aside as fracking enthusiasts turned back attempts to either slow or more carefully regulate the industry. A glaring example: Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat, proposed an amendment that would have kept drillers from disposing of the toxic wastewater produced during hydraulic fracturing in surface waters, or from storing it in open pits. The amendment was tabled.
The House did lift the Senate’s July 1, 2015 “date certain” for fracking permits. However, it also backed away from what was commonly understood to be a commitment that the legislature would have to approve fracking rules now being drafted by the state Mining and Energy Commission before the rules could take effect.
Now, instead of lawmakers having to approve the rules before they took effect, they’d have to vote to disapprove the rules if they wanted to block them. It’s a politically expedient change and one that makes it even more certain that North Carolina by no later than next summer will see the first exploratory gas wells being drilled.
The state can use an abundant supply of relatively cheap, locally produced energy — if indeed natural gas is present in commercially viable amounts, which some experts doubt. But fracking opponents see the possibility that the industry could end up degrading water supplies, with some residents’ hopes for clean water written off as collateral damage. If we’re supposed to treat others as we’d like to be treated, ruining someone’s water – or risking it – doesn’t qualify.