With one final gathering that on June 25 drew more than 1,000 people to the heart of North Carolina’s state government, the NC NAACP and its allies say they have concluded the latest round of Moral Monday protests that focused national attention on policies of the General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory.
With rare exception, leaders of the Republican-controlled legislature outwardly paid little heed to the protests, which peaked last summer with crowds that could fairly be described as massive. Still, in keeping with the old rule of watching what they do, not what they say, there are signs that at least some legislators were mindful of the complaints.
The Rev. William Barber Jr., state NAACP president and chief spokesman for the Moral Monday movement, urged supporters now to pivot from protesting to organizing for an upsurge at the polls. Indeed, the electoral clout of teachers and other public school advocates who swelled the movement’s ranks likely figured in proposals by McCrory, the House and Senate to raise teachers’ pay, which now sits awkwardly near the bottom of national rankings.
The messy truth of the matter is that those proposals are all over the lot in terms of how large the raises would be and how they’d be funded. That’s one of the high-profile issues yet to be resolved as legislators and the governor try to agree on a new state budget to take effect on July 1.
Sadly, there’s no hope in sight for some of the other people who have wound up on the short end of the conservative agenda dominating Raleigh for the last year and a half – for example, low-income residents who can’t get Medicaid coverage, unemployed people who saw their jobless benefits curtailed, and folks who will have to go to extra, needless trouble to cast a vote.
Many voices joined
Moral Mondays gave a wide range of North Carolinians a forum in which to express their disappointment – even their outrage – over an agenda that in many respects has been both shortsighted and callous.
Assembling late Monday afternoons on a mall outside the Legislative Building, surrounded by the other buildings where the work of state government gets done, protesters heard Barber and other speakers decry policies that have taken North Carolina down an unfamiliar road away from its moderate heritage.
This, after all, is a state where “the weak grow strong and the strong grow great” – and they’ve done it not only on the basis of their own pride and resourcefulness, but also by benefiting from public investment in schools, universities, clean and healthy communities. The social safety net might not always have protected people from misfortune, but it has been more dependable here than in some other states.
That makes social services spending a target for legislators trying to save money. Yes, they want to increase overall outlays for Medicaid, the joint federal-state program that covers health expenses for many poor people. The increase would cover enrollment growth as the population expands and higher costs as enrollees become older.
Yet under the Senate’s proposed budget, several thousand lower-income elderly, blind or disabled residents would have their Medicaid coverage canceled. Why? Because North Carolina isn’t required under federal law to provide it. What if the letter of the law isn’t good enough? What if some of our most vulnerable neighbors have to suffer?
The House, in its budget plan – and perhaps with an eye toward those thousands who have rallied to Moral Mondays, standing up for the interests of the powerless – would let this group of Medicaid beneficiaries remain on the rolls.
Teachers get attention
House leaders – perhaps with another eye toward the U.S. Senate candidacy of Speaker Thom Tillis, who doesn’t need to be painted as a foe of reasonable investment in the public schools – also would preserve the jobs of more than 7,000 teacher assistants to whom the Senate would say goodbye.
The Senate’s plan to drop assistants in second- and third-grade classrooms would save a large chunk of change — $233 million in the upcoming fiscal year. It also would increase the burden on regular teachers trying to give each student the kind of individual attention that helps lay a foundation for success in the grades to come.
The Senate would apply those savings to substantial teacher pay raises averaging 11 percent. The catch is that for teachers to qualify for those raises, they’d have to forgo their protections from arbitrary firing, commonly known as tenure. It’s a deal they shouldn’t be forced to make.
The House favors more modest raises averaging 5 percent while it refrains from coupling higher pay to a loss of tenure. What’s wrong with that picture?
First, if legislators and Gov. McCrory hadn’t been so eager to cut taxes in a way that primarily benefits higher-income earners, cutting them to the tune of some $500 million a year, they’d have more revenue to put toward raises that would make a significant difference in North Carolina’s ability to attract and keep well-qualified teachers. (Former state schools superintendent Mike Ward, at the Council of Churches’ recent Critical Issues Seminar on public education, dryly noted that North Carolina is now “First in Teacher Flight.”)
Second, the House would finance the raises in part with additional proceeds from the state lottery. House leaders have struggled to get their story straight as to how much extra lottery money they’d be able to count on. And it leaves a sour taste to think that fair pay for teachers would hinge on the further exploitation of lottery customers hoping against all odds to strike it rich so they can keep on paying the rent.
McCrory and Speaker Tillis on June 25 announced that the House would advance a separate budget bill encompassing their education priorities, including the 5 percent raise for teachers. If the House and Senate can’t agree on that bill or an updated overall budget, state government will have to operate on the basis of a tentative spending plan for fiscal 2014-15 that was approved a year ago.
That budget includes nothing for higher teacher salaries. Of course, it was drafted while the Moral Monday protests were just gathering steam. What a coincidence that McCrory, Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger in the months that followed each concluded that yes, teachers in North Carolina truly do deserve to be paid more for their invaluable work!
McCrory now asserts that teachers won’t be left hanging whether or not a revised budget is enacted. That promise would be easier to keep if the state weren’t so pinched for revenue because of those tax cuts, which are scheduled to grow even larger at the start of 2015. If the governor wanted to take a courageous stand, he’d urge legislative leaders – fellow Republicans, after all — to put those additional cuts on hold.
Policy-makers called out
The Moral Monday coalition understandably objected to tax cuts that make it harder for the state to sustain services vital to many residents, especially those saddled with the disadvantages of poverty.
It objected to the shortsighted decision not to expand the state’s federally funded Medicaid program so it would cover upwards of 300,000 low-income people who otherwise aren’t eligible for government-subsidized health care.
It objected to harsh cutbacks in benefits for the long-term unemployed, imposed as if to punish people for being out of work in the aftermath of a cruel recession.
It objected to election law changes likely to hold down the vote among – guess who? – folks typically not inclined to favor the conservative agenda.
Many people aligned with the Council of Churches joined the Moral Monday protests, and some were among the 1,000 or so arrested during the past year after engaging in peaceable civil disobedience inside the Legislative Building.
Some of those charges have held up; others have been dismissed or are still working their way through the courts amid debates over the constitutionality of rules that shield the General Assembly from protests. Whatever the outcome of those cases, Moral Monday participants should be proud of having made their points to legislators, the governor and the public at large.