I have heard a lot of talk these past few months from people running down North Carolina. I don’t like it. I believe this state has come a long way over the past three decades. And I believe that a lot of the people who have bad things to say about our state don’t like the progress we have made and want to take us back to where we were 30 years ago. We were less educated back then. We had less diversity and women and members of minority groups were treated more unfairly than many of them are today.
Change is always difficult, but in North Carolina we have had visionary leaders who realized the inevitable shift in our economy from one based on manufacturing to one based on knowledge. They decided to make North Carolina stronger we needed to increase the state’s focus on education. We needed to further develop a powerful university system, to develop more stringent standards and guidelines for our public schools and to eventually design and fund pre-kindergarten programs to reach those children who otherwise would have started so far behind their peers that their chances of success were limited. In addition, they developed a network of community colleges that now not only provide general education courses for students interested in pursuing higher education, but also provide specific job-training skills that allow people to enter the workforce prepared to do what is asked of them.
The result of this push was that over time our preschool programs and community college system became models for the nation and the world. People from everywhere looked to North Carolina for lessons in education. The constituent schools in our university system consistently rank among the best buys in higher education. Our SAT scores improved faster than most other places and the number of dropouts steadily declined. Our high school graduation rate was more than 80 percent this past year, a record high. And we remain a consistent leader in unbiased, nonpartisan rankings of the best places to do business, live and raise a family.
This is the part of the story that the critics omit. North Carolina, despite its struggles, was in a much better place than most of our fellow states. We may have had less money than we anticipated in some years, but our budget was balanced every single year. We looked at how much we had to spend and that’s how much we spent, no more. It is required by our constitution that we balance the budget. There’s no getting around it.
The new Legislative leaders neglect to tell people about how lawmakers designed budgets even in those lean years to preserve as many jobs in education as possible at all levels. They neglect to mention the difficult choices I and others made to preserve the classroom as much as possible, even during the depth of the international recession. They won’t tell you that they have made conscious, deliberate choices to weaken our classrooms and shortchange our students. They eliminated a grant program that invested money in community-based dropout prevention programs all over the state. They cut the budgets for books, buses, staff training and just about everything else associated with school spending.
They will say they reduced taxes, but then they blame the shortfall they created themselves by that choice on someone else, anyone besides themselves.
They eliminated 6,000 positions in our public schools in the past year. They have also put hundreds, perhaps thousands, of state workers out of jobs in addition to what they’ve done to our schools. The cumulative effect of their bad decisions is an unemployment rate that continues to worsen relative to other states. North Carolina’s unemployment is now the fifth-worst in the country. Much of the drop is fueled by cuts in public sector jobs, jobs that our legislative leaders directly control. Private sector growth is rebounding in North Carolina. Public sector growth is lagging and everyone in this state suffers because of that.
But while they complain that there is not enough money to go around for teachers or state workers, they did find enough money to give another tax break worth $140 million to people making more than $100,000 a year. While they were laying off kindergarten teachers and driving up class sizes, eliminating programs for gifted children, shutting down scholarship programs for college kids and continuing their fight to deny access to pre-kindergarten for thousands of kids, the wealthy got another tax break.
They paid for this tax break and others by cutting programs designed to help struggling communities attract and retain jobs, programs like the Rural Center that help small towns, programs like Golden LEAF that invest in communities still struggling as they transition away from the tobacco industry. They cut millions out of programs used to help attract new industry to North Carolina and are sabotaging our economic development efforts on one hand while they complain on the other hand about high unemployment.
They paid for this tax break in part by driving up costs for people who use the judicial system, fees to file an estate claim, to file a claim in small claims court or to file a foreclosure notice. They are tolling ferries down east and driving up the cost of driver’s education in our schools. These are all increases that will overwhelmingly hit the middle class. They also increased the cost for someone taking a GED test by more than three times and community college and university tuitions have increased by double digits. Our so-called “job creators” won’t have much of a workforce if the cost continues to be a barrier that prevents people from getting the education they need.
I love North Carolina. I’m proud of the work we’ve done in this state to move forward and I want to continue to serve this state. I want to focus on real job creation by investing in education and giving companies the resources they need to succeed, not just lip service. My vision for this state includes clean industry, good-paying jobs and an educated workforce. That’s what I have worked on in the legislature and that’s what I will continue to pursue. I think most people here want the same, not a place where just the rich get the perks and the rest of us hope to get a little bit of whatever is left over.
That’s not the way we’ve been successful in North Carolina and this path we are on now will not take us where we want to go.
Please feel free to contact me when you have questions or concerns pertaining to Legislative matters.
Room 1111 - Legislative Building
16 W. Jones Street
Raleigh, NC 2760