North Carolina legislators faced with vexing conflicts over a new state budget spent a solid week pawing and snorting at each other without a lot of movement on the main sticking points.
Another case of partisan gridlock? Well, one could say so – except this is a standoff between members of the same party.
The stakes are so big, in terms of both policy and politics, that Gov. Pat McCrory has joined the fray, siding with one set of his fellow Republicans against the other. Here, then, are the contending forces in a battle that centers on teacher pay and on health care:
- Republicans who control the state House seek an overall 6 percent increase in the state’s teacher salaries – now averaging a woeful 46th highest in the country. They’ve bumped up their offer from 5 percent, and they say that’s all the state can afford without making intolerable cuts elsewhere in education and human services spending. McCrory has lined up with Speaker Thom Tillis in backing the House position.
- The GOP majority in the Senate, suitably alarmed over low teacher pay that is driving teachers from the classroom, favors 11 percent raises. But to help find $465 million needed for the pay hikes, senators would divert $233 million that now pays for an estimated 5,000 teacher assistants who help out in second- and third-grade classrooms, plus 1,200 regular teachers. They’d also cut back on the number of people served by Medicaid – dropping several thousand lower-income elderly, blind or disabled residents from the rolls, as well as another group now eligible because of extraordinary medical expenses.
When each chamber enacted its own proposed version of a state budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, a conference committee was named to try to resolve the differences.
In the week beginning Monday, July 7, conferees traded offers that helped settle some disagreements, such as how much to set aside to cover expected but hard-to-calculate cost overruns in the Medicaid program. The Senate, preferring to be cautious in trying to keep the overall budget balanced as required, favored a larger cushion than did the House. They agreed on a compromise in the middle.
The House had wanted to juice state lottery revenues by allowing more advertising, with the aim of helping fund its teacher pay plan. That didn’t go over well in the Senate, for good reason, and the idea was dropped.
The Senate, meanwhile, gave up on its controversial effort to channel higher salaries only to teachers who relinquished their current “tenure” protections against arbitrary firing. The argument had been that doing away with tenure would make it easier to jettison ineffective teachers. A larger problem, though, is turnover in the teacher ranks due to stagnant salaries, onerous working conditions and a failure to treat teachers as the professionals they are. Scrapping tenure would have done nothing to address those issues.
Out in the open
In an unusual stroke encouraged by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, conferees held some of their negotiations in public. That started off well enough, but things went off the rails on July 9 when the House side maneuvered to put pressure on their Senate counterparts.
The House strategy was to call leading public school figures to describe the damage that would flow from the Senate’s proposed layoffs of teacher assistants. Besides throwing thousands of people out of work, the Senate plan would make it harder for regular teachers to have students reading proficiently by the end of third grade – a new requirement championed by Berger.
Senate conferees didn’t want to have to sit there and listen while their plan was blasted. They said the rules for such a meeting didn’t allow for public testimony. When chief House negotiator Nelson Dollar of Cary insisted on having the testimony anyway, his Senate counterpart, Harry Brown of Jacksonville, led a walkout by the Senate group. Perhaps the senators could simply have stuck their fingers in their ears!
A later exchange between Dollar and Sen. Neal Hunt of Raleigh highlighted another major House-Senate disconnect. Hunt argued for going large on teacher pay raises, even if it meant going ahead with the Senate’s proposed cuts to Medicaid. For years, he said, the state has favored such “welfare” programs over education.
Of course, the term “welfare” in conservative circles carries an unsavory something-for-nothing stigma. Dollar noted that the state’s Medicaid spending allows more than a million North Carolinians – including pregnant women and people with mental illness, diabetes, heart conditions and cancer – to obtain affordable health care.
“I don’t see those things as welfare,” Dollar said. “I see those as treating our fellow 1.6, 1.7 million citizens of our state in a very humane way.”
It was a commendable push for decent treatment of folks who haven’t gotten many breaks. Dollar might well have added that going along with Medicaid cuts would put Speaker Tillis, the top House Republican, in an awkward spot as he campaigns for the U.S. Senate against Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan. Tillis would be on the hook for helping to rip the health care safety net out from under thousands of the state’s most vulnerable residents.
Adult care at risk
The House conferees went back at it on Monday, July 14, although no Republican senators deigned to show up (Senate leaders said they were working in private on another budget offer). The meeting featured a summary by Dollar of how the negotiations had gone so far. His message was that while the House was willing to be flexible, at least more flexible than the stuck-in-concrete Senate, to yield to the Senate’s demands would mean serious harm to the schools and to human services.
For example, Dollar projected that under the Senate’s Medicaid cuts, more than 37,000 aged, blind, disabled or otherwise “medically fragile” residents would be affected, many of them losing the means to pay for adult care facilities or for care at home. He also questioned whether the federal government would approve such a drastic change, amounting to the loss of $633 million a year in state and matching federal funds.
One concession by the Senate has been to agree to set aside $170 million that the House could channel toward its priorities of saving teacher assistant jobs and easing Medicaid cuts. But House budget chiefs say that amount won’t do the trick.
Teacher pay, at least
Tillis has floated the possibility of adjourning the session without approval of a new budget bill, allowing the 2014-15 budget tentatively approved a year ago to take effect.
What’s crucial, says the speaker, is honoring Republican promises that teachers, especially teachers at the outset of their careers, would see a pay raise. McCrory, Tillis and Berger several months ago declared their support for such raises with great fanfare.
The issue of teacher pay could in fact be handled via a separate bill. The House passed one such bill, unanimously, but the Senate has refused to consider it, in part because it doesn’t make what the Senate sees as necessary fixes to Medicaid.
The crux of the problem bedeviling the governor and legislative leaders is that it’s hard to find enough money to do everything they want to do – as well as everything state government should be doing in the way of investment in public services of all kinds. That’s because the state has forfeited huge amounts of revenue by cutting taxes in keeping with conservative theories that lower taxes will boost the economy.
What’s clear is that the cuts have shifted the relative tax burden away from higher-income earners so that it falls more on the middle and lower ends of the income range. At the same time, the state struggles to address common-sense spending priorities embraced by the reliably conservative Tillis and Dollar. And yes, those priorities overlap with those of the Council of Churches and its allies, concerned as they are with strengthening the public schools, improving health care for the disadvantaged and taking other steps to enhance social and economic justice.
Settling the remaining budget disputes may be complicated by the clash of egos and the maneuvering that accompanies political campaigns. None of that, however, would much matter if legislators could bring themselves to revisit decisions about taxes that have made this year’s budget process far more difficult than it needs to be — and potentially harmful to North Carolina’s best interests as a place where no one is shoved to off to the side of society and forgotten.