Teachers and state employees have every right to be angry if the only pay increase they will see this year is a one-time $750 bonus. The amount is paltry compared to what they deserve, and it is less than what the state can afford.
It’s also a set-up.
Behind closed doors last week, Republicans were smirking about this measly sum. Why? Because by limiting the amount of money spent on state employees and making it a bonus rather than a real raise, they are setting the playing field for 2016 election-year politics.
Republican legislators are quite confident that with an improving economy, next year’s state budget will include the largest “raise” for teachers and state employees since the recession.
After years of tiny raises, no raises, or bonuses, giving state employees a sizable raise during the 2016 election cycle would be very smart political gamesmanship. It will be an act of generosity after years of starvation, and it will almost certainly be accompanied by thrust out chests and bragging campaign rhetoric.
This year’s budget has ample room to provide an actual raise. Budget projections started with a $400 million surplus. The House-proposed budget included a 2 percent across the board raise, a larger raise for starting teachers, and some flexibility for larger raises for hard-to-fill state positions.
The state could afford more, much more, if we simply delayed a planned 2 percent tax reduction on profitable corporations. I have to imagine that at least some of those corporations would be happy to leave their tax rate intact in exchange for boosting teacher pay.
Another problem with this Republican ploy is that providing this year’s pay bump in the form of a one-time bonus means that it doesn’t count towards employees’ base salary. That means that any raise next year would be calculated without taking this bonus into account. Take for instance a teacher making $37,500. The first 2 percent of any raise they would receive is just the equivalent of this bonus. If Republicans trumpet a 5 percent raise next year, it would really be only a 3 percent raise for that teacher.
This isn’t the first time that Republican legislators have used this kind of trickery to sell a weak pay scheme. Just last year, the raise that teachers received included wrapping in the longevity pay bonus that many veteran teachers were already entitled to receive.
North Carolinians need to understand the type of cynical and neglectful leadership we are getting from Republicans. Although their campaigns next year will extol the virtues of all they’ve done for teachers and schools, you’ll find very few school professionals who will join their chorus.
As our economy continues to strengthen, our private sector is profiting and companies are investing in their own workforces. Our state should be on the same path.
Periods of economic expansion are the best time to make public investments that create private opportunities. While tax revenues increase without the need to increase tax rates, the surplus can and should be used for things that benefit everyone.
To my mind, supporting good schools is the best investment we can make. North Carolina has a long history of using strong public schools as the engine to create one of the strongest economies in the Southeast. We can and should return to that approach.
Sometimes a set-up is a good thing. Like when we work together to set up our children for a successful future. Unfortunately, this set-up is nothing but bad politics.
N.C. Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, is co-chair of the House Democrats Freshman Caucus. He wrote this essay for EdNC, an education news website.