The chaos that was the 2014 not so short session of the General Assembly finally ended this week, though there are rumors that Governor Pat McCrory may call lawmakers back to town to pass more economic development legislation and maybe tackle Medicaid reform.
But the House and Senate have gone home for now thank goodness, and the last few days of the dysfunctional session provide a perfect window through which to understand what this summer was all about.
The House and Senate battled back and forth bitterly in the final days over complex legislation that the Senate passed that would expand business incentive programs for economic development and cap local sales tax rates, a measured aimed squarely at the state’s urban counties.
House Speaker Thom Tillis seemed to like the idea but couldn’t convince the majority of the House to go along with it, so the Senate tried blackmail, making the passage of a separate bill that would give local schools more flexibility with funding for teacher assistants contingent on the passage of the economic development/sales tax legislation.
Education officials, Governor Pat McCrory, and most rank and file legislators supported the teacher assistant fix after passing a budget that slashed $105 million in funding for TAs and did not allow schools to move around enough extra funding provided for teachers to make up the difference.
The plan failed as the House voted against the blackmail attempt, partially because of opposition to new corporate welfare programs and partially because many legislators, including high-ranking members of Tillis’ own leadership team, objected to the bizarre process and the legislative extortion effort by the Senate.
When the shock of the mini-coup in the House subsided, legislative leaders resurrected and passed one piece of the defeated bill that would give $12 million to a paper mill in Haywood County to replace its boilers to meet new EPA requirements.
No such last minute effort was made to rescue the provision to help schools with teacher assistants, the latest blow to the Republican’s primary aim this summer, to present a kinder, gentler face to voters this election year to take the edge off the regressive and hard-right session of 2013 that prompted widespread public outrage and condemnation.
Governor Pat McCrory, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, and Speaker Tillis all promised before the session began that a significant pay raise for teacher was their top priority.
The plan seemed to be to use the teacher raise to blunt the criticism that the current General Assembly did not support public schools, which was a rational response to the decisions made in 2013 to slash classroom funding, create an unaccountable private school voucher scheme, and leave teachers with no raise again as teacher pay in North Carolina fell to 46th in the nation.
Maybe if the General Assembly could give teachers a big raise this year, it would not only address voters’ anger about education but soften the overall impression of a legislature that went on a far-right legislative binge in 2013.
Last year lawmakers punished unemployed workers, restricted women’s access to health services, refused to expand Medicaid, made it harder for low-income citizens and people of color to vote, removed basic environmental protections, and passed a tax package that gave millionaires a $12,000 windfall while ending the state Earned Income Tax Credit that helped low-wage workers.
Not to mention the war on cities, allowing guns in bars and parks, and arbitrarily firing folks they don’t agree with on important state boards and commissions.
And they slashed funding for teachers and teacher assistants, failed to provide enough money for students to have textbooks, went after career status protections for educators, and even ended a tax break for teachers forced to buy their own classroom supplies because the budget doesn’t provide enough money for them.
It was a session that made voters mad in every corner of North Carolina, as the massive statewide Moral Monday movement made clear every week.
But maybe a teacher pay raise would take the edge off legislative leaders seemed to think, and mislead people in an election year into thinking that this General Assembly strongly supports public education.
It was a flawed plan from the beginning. Last year’s session was too extreme to be forgotten. And they couldn’t pull off the teacher pay raise anyway. Their ideology simply wouldn’t let them.
Instead of giving every teacher the decent raise that they all deserved, they came up with a confusing plan based on their animosity toward career status and their devotion to flawed merit pay schemes.
The final budget gives some younger teachers a double-digit increase while giving many veteran teachers barely any raise at all.
And they cut education funding in other places to pay for part of the increase and pieced together more lottery money and other budget gimmicks to come up with the rest. And they ended up cutting funding for teacher assistants and refusing to address it in the waning days of the session as they scrambled to help a single corporation.
It was a fitting end indeed to a summer designed to soften the image of a legislature committed to a regressive agenda.
They couldn’t help themselves. Public schools are not their priority, not even close. It’s all about the far-right ideology with this crowd, no matter how hard they try to convince us otherwise.