There were two must-dos when the legislature convened in May: Raise teacher pay and clean up the state’s coal ash mess. In both cases, lawmakers doused the immediate fire but left dangerous embers burning.
The two topics could not be ignored. Teacher pay fared worse in North Carolina over the past decade than in any other state, dropping our ranking to 46th. And when a Duke Energy pipe burst and spewed 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River, the summer agenda in Raleigh was set.
Still, with this bunch, you can’t assume that even the most-dire needs will be addressed. So I give them credit for passing the state’s largest teacher raise in many years and forging a coal ash plan that will close all of Duke’s ash ponds.
Yet serious shortcomings weaken each piece of legislation. The teacher pay raise gives a nice boost to early-career teachers but does next to nothing for those who have dedicated their lives to the profession. In Mecklenburg, the raises will be as high as 18.5 percent for some – but as low as 0.3 percent for others. And the package was paid for with a Frankenstein-like mix of sources – the lottery, and other education cuts – that hurts the state and is probably unsustainable.
As for Duke, the giant utility faces serious coal ash regulation for the first time, but is shedding no tears. The law forces Duke to excavate ash at only four of its 14 N.C. coal-fired power plants. Some of the other ponds can just be capped and forgotten. And guess who’s likely to pay for the $10 billion cleanup? Duke can begin seeking rate hikes on customers to cover the tab just months from now.
The legislature took some first steps on the state’s two most crucial issues. I suppose it would have been naïve to hope for more.