Opinion

A look back and ahead

Each year, the Observer’s editorial board looks ahead to some critical questions Charlotte and North Carolina face in the upcoming 12 months. Today, we answer last year’s questions, then ask three more about issues that will shape the quality of life for millions of North Carolinians in the year ahead.

Was N.C. energy efficient?

North Carolina faced a crossroads with energy in 2014. Would Gov. Pat McCrory, who has long promised an “all of the above” approach to energy options, support all energy options or only the more controversial exploration of fracking and off-shore drilling?

Little happened with off-shore drilling, and green energy subsidies remained quietly and thankfully intact. But the state is going all-in on hydraulic fracturing – and fast. Last month, the state’s Rules Review Commission sent 117 rules on fracking to the state legislature despite a staff attorney’s warning that several failed to meet state standards and should be delayed for public hearings.

There should be less of a rush, especially with low oil and gas prices bringing into question exactly how profitable fracking will be – and whether that will be worth the potential dangers.

Was education a priority?

North Carolina entered 2014 ranked 46th in the nation in teacher pay. And it ranked dead last for what had happened to teacher pay over the previous 10 years. A school system is only as good as its teachers, and a state’s economy is generally only as good as its public education system. Teachers were beginning to leave the state or the profession, and raising their pay was imperative.

Legislators finally acted in 2014. The plan they passed was a good start: It included average pay raises of 5.5 percent and dedicated $282 million to teacher pay raises. But it was tilted toward teachers in the early years of their career. The most veteran teachers got almost nothing.

This year, legislators need to continue to pull N.C. teacher pay toward the national average, and make other targeted investments in education.

Did transit plan emerge?

Charlotte just keeps on growing. Despite the real potential for Atlanta-style gridlock, its budget for transit upgrades has not. Faced with a multi-billion-dollar shortfall in sales tax money earmarked for the region’s 2030 transit plan, the Metropolitan Transit Commission spent another year searching in vain for new money. True, construction surged ahead on the Blue Line Extension, but there’s no money for transit projects beyond it.

Federal grant funds remain hard to come by, and there have been ominous rumblings from Raleigh that the Republican-controlled legislature might consider diverting some of Mecklenburg’s sales taxes to other uses. City Council’s decision to move ahead with the $150 million extension of its east-west streetcar sparked debate last year, but it was just one small piece of what remains perhaps the region’s most stubborn public policy riddle.

Will CMS get leadership?

It’s quite possible the next Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent is already working here. Many inside and outside the district believe deputy superintendent Ann Clark is more than capable.

But before CMS even begins a search for a new leader, it needs to fully reconcile what led to the departure of the last one.

There are still many questions surrounding the departure of Heath Morrison. Some are about process – such as why he was investigated without school board approval. Some involve bigger issues, including this: What was Clark’s role in all of it?

The CMS board continues to resist calls for an outside counsel to investigate what happened. Without that, the public will continue to wonder what the school board is hiding, and potential replacements might justifiably worry about what they’d be getting into.

Will voters get a real say?

Redistricting used to be an obscure, behind-the-scenes practice. Now, Americans are realizing how much partisan redistricting rigs elections, disenfranchises voters and contributes to the polarization in politics.

N.C. legislators from the party in power draw legislative and congressional maps. They do so to favor their party. Most districts are uncompetitive for one party or the other, rendering many voters largely irrelevant. North Carolina should move to a nonpartisan approach that eliminates political considerations from the mapmaking.

N.C. Republicans clamored for this when they were out of power, and Democrats do today. Now is the time to do it – years before the 2020 census that will be used for the next round. Prominent members of both parties are calling for the change. Voters should demand legislators listen.

Will N.C. face a shortfall?

Republicans running the legislature in Raleigh cut corporate and personal income taxes in 2013 and broadened the sales tax base, hoping to fuel private-sector growth. The economy has grown, but it remains to be seen if future expansion will cover the cost of the tax cuts.

Warning lights are blinking. Year-over-year state tax revenues are down by $410 million, and stood some $190 million below projections as of December. Additional tax cuts took effect with the start of the new year.

While critics are rightfully wondering if the tax cuts went too far, Republican leaders such as Rep. Skip Stam, the House speaker pro tem, don’t seem worried. We’ll see where things stand after sales taxes from the Christmas shopping season come in. If the shortfall keeps growing, lawmakers would be fools not to rethink the tax cuts.

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