Being in Raleigh cant be good for Republican Thom Tillis. The House speaker is running for Democrat Kay Hagans U.S. Senate seat, and every minute spent at the General Assembly building is one hes not spending on the campaign trail. Besides, his legislative record dismays many Democrats and independents, so his campaign is not likely to be helped by a summer of right-wing policymaking. Still, the legislature has a full plate for its short session that starts today. Heres how wed like to see things play out.
Coal ash cleanup
Duke Energys spill of 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River highlighted the urgency of dealing with the utilitys 32 ash ponds across the state. Besides the threat of a catastrophic breach like in Eden, there is the constant threat of leaks contaminating groundwater. The legislature should require Duke to move the ash away from bodies of water and store it in dry, lined landfills, and as quickly as possible. Gov. Pat McCrory, a long-time Duke employee, doesnt want to go that far. Sen. Tom Apodaca has said he does. He and the legislature should stand up to the barrage of lobbying theyll surely endure on this issue.
McCrorys first stab at addressing North Carolinas woeful teacher pay was inadequate raises for beginning teachers, but nothing for others. After a backlash, he came out last week with a meatier approach: 2 percent hikes for all other teachers and a new pay schedule that gives sizable raises to all teachers and $3,000 raises every three years. They could also boost their pay in other ways, such as by taking on leadership roles. Its a strong start. Legislators should go a step further and commit to raising N.C. teacher pay to the national average within, say, five years. The drain of strong teachers to surrounding states must stop.
Other education initiatives
Legislators need to make important progress on other educational fronts, too. They should start by repealing a law they passed last year that ended teachers career status, or tenure. It forced school districts to offer $500-a-year raises to 25 percent of teachers in return for giving up tenure rights. A Superior Court judge ruled last week the law may be unconstitutional. At a minimum, it is bad policy that insults teachers and puts superintendents in impossible positions. Legislators should also shelve a bill that ends the use of Common Core standards, reinstate teacher raises for masters degrees and reverse cuts to the states pre-K program.
Lawmakers discovered last week they face a $445 million shortfall for the current budget year and one of $200 million or so for next year. Much of that was of legislators own making: Republicans cut personal and corporate income taxes last year to the tune of $2.5 billion over five years. Tax revenues have come in even more slowly than projected, however. Republicans shouldnt wiggle out of this by cutting more from education and vital programs. They should instead revisit some of the dramatic tax cuts. And they could start plugging the budget hole by letting incentives for the film industry expire as scheduled.
Earned Income Tax Credit
Legislative Republicans, who talk frequently of wanting to get people to work, killed one of the bigger incentives for poor people to work: the state Earned Income Tax Credit. It was a small amount of money that helped the working poor feed their kids and pay the rent. According to N.C. Policy Watch, North Carolina is the only state in the nation to eliminate the EITC in nearly 30 years. The tax credit, originally championed by Ronald Reagan, helps keep low-income North Carolinians from relying on much more expensive state and local services. Legislators should restore it this summer.
McCrory proposed last week giving veterans in-state tuition at UNC campuses and earlier proposed the same for community colleges. UNC system President Tom Ross and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, among others, jumped on board. Legislators should, too. Veterans who served at least four years, including at least partly in North Carolina, would be eligible. North Carolina is home to thousands of vets who will soon be discharged and looking to continue their education. Besides repaying vets a bit for serving their country, legislators would be helping the state by keeping that talent here.
Companies are eager to tap into possible natural gas deposits embedded in underground shale in several N.C. counties. Legislators should slow things down. The N.C. Mining and Energy Commission has been put in charge of writing rules governing the industry. It proposes pushing from October to January the deadline it faces for sending proposed rules to the legislature for approval. Thats good. But legislators need to examine other proposals closely, such as one that would allow companies to keep secret from the public the chemicals they inject into the ground, and one that lowers fees for drilling wells.
Leaders of last years Moral Mondays protests vow to return. The protests sparked 945 arrests, and almost all of them were of citizens who were protesting peacefully and not interrupting legislators work sessions. Leaders of the movement could only half-heartedly complain, because it was the arrests that drew so much attention to their cause. Still, General Assembly police were often too quick to break out the handcuffs. They should allow protests to proceed peacefully, and arrest only those who go over the line and keep lawmakers from convening.
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