Richmond County’s state lawmakers hope to set aside enough money for teacher pay raises while plugging a half-billion-dollar hole in North Carolina’s budget.
The N.C. General Assembly convenes Wednesday for the 2014 short session, and lawmakers expect to return from Raleigh with salary hikes for teachers and state employees. North Carolina ranks 46th in the nation for teacher pay.
“Education has taken a real beating in the previous session,” said Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Hoke, who represents roughly half or Richmond County in House District 48. “I hope we can turn some of that around. Now is a really good time to show educators and state workers that we really appreciate what they do.”
The Republican-led General Assembly replaced tenure with a merit-based pay plan for the state’s teachers last year. Lawmakers also eliminated salary increases for teachers who earn master’s and doctorate degrees.
Rep. Ken Goodman, D-Richmond, said a one-time infusion of cash shouldn’t be used to fund permanent pay hikes for teachers and state workers.
“One of the possibilities is that they will fund some of it with non-recurring funds, with one-time money,” Goodman said. “This is going to be a recurring expense, and if that happens, I think that’s bad budgeting.”
Sen. Gene McLaurin, D-Richmond, agreed with his fellow legislators that teacher compensation will be a top issue as the House and Senate meet to hammer out a 2014-15 budget.
Pierce suggested a 2 percent across-the-board raise for all state employees, noting that teachers aren’t the only public workers feeling squeezed. North Carolina won’t catch up with surrounding states overnight, but lawmakers hope the gesture gives teachers who might otherwise relocate a reason to stay.
“It’s going to be a ways down the road before we can compete with some of these other states,” Pierce said. “We shouldn’t want to lose our teachers. They’re a great group of folks, and they’re doing great things.”
Pierce hopes to see changes to the state’s Medicaid program that emphasize preventative medicine. Doctor visits that promote wellness and prevent illnesses would be cheaper in the long run than treating chronic diseases, he explained.
“Health care has really gone up — it’s unpredictable,” he said. “That’s why we talk about prevention. I hope we’ll get our heads wrapped around it. Every day, our costs go up for our citizens’ medical care. We’ve got to find some way to manage that.”
Lawmakers are also likely to address efforts to clean up Duke Energy’s coal ash spill, Waste from one of Duke’s coal ash ponds near Eden leaked into the Dan River in February, contaminating the water with more than 50,000 tons of ash.
“Besides the obvious issues of tax policy and teacher compensation, we need to set clear priorities about protection of our natural resources, our water, land and air,” McLaurin said. “The coal ash pond spill on the Dan River could easily have happened on the Yadkin/Pee Dee River, which is a main water source for our citizens, farmers and business community here in Richmond County.”
Following the 2013 regular session in the General Assembly’s two-year term, the short session’s main objective is approving the next year’s budget. But bills without budgetary implications that met the crossover deadline, or have been passed in one chamber and sent to the other, can still be considered.
One such measure, Senate Bill 287, would exempt local governments in Guilford and Mecklenburg counties from public notice requirements. The counties and cities would be able to place public notices on their official websites instead of advertising in newspaper classifieds under the bill.
Pierce said the proposal would exclude residents without Internet access and make government less open. He voted against SB 287 last year, as did Sen. Gene McLaurin, D-Richmond, and Rep. Ken Goodman, D-Richmond.
“A lot of people will never see it if you don’t have it in the paper,’ Pierce said.
The short session begins today and has no end date — lawmakers remain in Raleigh until a budget is approved. Pierce and Goodman predicted the session would wrap up before the Fourth of July.