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A look back and ahead

One year ago, the Observer’s editorial board looked ahead to some critical questions Charlotte and North Carolina would face during 2013. Today, we answer those questions, then ask three more about issues that will shape the quality of life for millions of North Carolinians in the year ahead.

Did N.C. get tax reform?

In 2012, gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory campaigned on reforming a tax code that was developed 80 years ago, when North Carolina had a vastly different, agriculture-based economy. We were all for reform, so long as it eliminated loopholes and brought more stable tax collections to help the state weather future economic ups and downs.

What the governor and legislature delivered this year wasn’t tax reform, despite his efforts to sell it as one. It was a tax cut, and it was a big one at $2.4 billion over the next five years. Loopholes were mostly left intact. The sales tax base was broadened only slightly. It was, said Senate Finance Committee co-chair Bob Rucho, “the first itsy-bitsy step toward tax reform.”

But given the full-throated sales pitch that followed – “Meaningful tax reform,” McCrory claimed. “Historic reform” – we doubt that a next step for reform is on the agenda for 2014. Whether you like tax cuts or not, that’s a missed opportunity for North Carolina.

Did N.C. pay eugenics victims?

Finally, yes. After years spent talking about compensating the living victims of our state’s unconscionable sterilization program – and after coming excruciatingly close to doing so in 2012 – N.C. lawmakers approved in July $10 million in compensation for what’s believed to be 150-200 remaining victims.

Credit goes to House Speaker Thom Tillis of Mecklenburg, who embraced then-Gov. Bev Perdue’s 2012 plan to right the wrongs of the longest running sterilization program in the nation. Gov. Pat McCrory added his important voice to the cause, helping to do what Perdue couldn’t even when it was her party that controlled the General Assembly.

From 1929 to 1974, in an effort to trim the welfare rolls, North Carolina declared more than 7,500 people unfit to reproduce. There is only a small fraction of them left, and they have waited too long for our state to do more than mouth its regret. Finally, North Carolina has. Finally, we can move forward.

Did Morrison follow through?

Just over a year ago, new Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools superintendent Heath Morrison followed up a whirlwind listening tour of the district with an eight-point CMS plan for the future. It included worthy goals such as creating more public school choices and connecting better with employees and the public. We asked: Can Morrison convince a wary community to invest in the plan – and him?

He’s off to a good start. He’s increasing public school choices with new magnets and an expansion of the popular middle college program. He continues to reach out to employees and the public, including parents who appreciate his formalizing requests to change neighborhood school assignments.

Like any superintendent, Morrison deals with factors outside his control, most notably a General Assembly that’s stingy with public school money. But with his accessibility and willingness to innovate, Morrison is building momentum and confidence that he’s the right man to steer CMS toward the future.

Responsible or reckless energy?

Gov. Pat McCrory says he still has an “all of the above” approach to energy, but 2014 may be the year North Carolina makes a controversial push forward on some energy options while deemphasizing others.

McCrory, who was recently made vice chairman of the two-year-old Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition, wants North Carolina to have a higher profile in offshore drilling. State officials also will decide in 2014 how to deal with transparency issues concerning the chemicals used in fracking. With both, the state must weigh the interests of industry against the public’s concerns about safety and the beauty of its coastline being jeopardized by drilling rigs.

McCrory also wants to reassess state subsidies of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Again, McCrory cites business interests – in this case keeping energy costs low as a recruiting tool. But will the governor see that when it comes to energy, there are other bottom lines that are just as important?

Education: Priority or not?

N.C. lawmakers erred in 2013 by not boosting teachers salaries in the last legislative session. Money isn’t the only thing that matters in keeping highly effective teachers in our schools but low and stagnant pay is certainly making the profession unattractive to many. Average teacher pay in the state dropped nearly 16 percent from 2002 to 2012 when adjusted for inflation. In 2013, North Carolina ranked 46th in the nation in pay.

The business imperative for paying teachers a decent wage is clear. A good public education system helps lure businesses to the state. But public schools are only as good as its teachers. In the legislative short session that starts in May, lawmakers and the governor should join forces to boost teacher pay.

They should also commit to providing adequate resources so more N.C. students can get a good education start in prekindergarten programs, and high school graduates have access to furthering their education at an N.C. community college or the state’s university system.

How will transit needs be met?

Transportation choices are key to keeping the Charlotte area vibrant and meeting the region’s growing transit needs. The region is one of the fastest growing in the nation, according to the last U.S. Census.

So, local and area leaders are right to focus on a plan that uses commuter rail to connect our various communities and other mass transit options including buses and, perhaps, streetcars to provide alternatives to car travel. It will help cut congestion, improve air quality and foster economic activity across the region, hopefully in communities currently lagging in business and job growth and opportunities.

The nagging question remains: How will the region pay for these necessary alternatives? Federal grants have helped but are no guarantee as we’ve seen in funding for light rail and a planned street car. This year, government leaders must agree on transportation priorities and come up with a viable plan to pay for them.

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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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