McCrory's Vision Gets Lukewarm Response From GOP Lawmakers
Teacher pay, tax incentives, road construction, Medicaid. These were some of the priorities laid out by Governor Pat McCrory during his State of the State address. WFAE’s Tom Bullock reports on the speech and reaction to it.
In North Carolina, the State of the State address is a biennial affair. Governor Pat McCrory started this speech right where his last State of the State began.
"It was just two years ago, right before I walked through these beautiful gold doors that my chief of staff, Thomas Stiff, handing me the phone and it wasn’t good news. I just received a phone call informing me that highway patrol trooper Michael Potts was fighting for his life."
During a routine traffic stop, Potts had been shot four times and left for dead.
Potts survived and after multiple surgeries and rehabilitation, he returned to duty. And that was the lead in for what is always the line of the night.
"Like Trooper Potts, I’m proud to report that the state of North Carolina has come back even stronger today as I speak right here. North Carolina is strong and it's going to be stronger. Its people are resilient and its future is bright," McCrory said.
It was after that applause that McCrory launched into the heart of his Carolina Comeback philosophy.
"Our unemployment rate, which just two years ago was the fifth highest in the nation has dropped substantially."
Construction cranes are back, real estate has recovered, private employers have added nearly 200,000 jobs in the state. All these numbers are statistically true. In January 2013, North Carolina’s unemployment rate was 9.2 percent. Today, it stands at 5.5 percent. Real estate prices have climbed, and commercial construction is up from the great recession years.
But that’s not the whole story, says Rep. Garland Pierce, chairman of the North Carolina Legislative Black Caucus.
"Too many of our families are still struggling from paycheck to paycheck, worried about how they’ll raise their children, find good jobs and make their mortgage."
Pierce says the answer lies with better jobs for the middle class – and education.
On education, the governor proposed changing the teacher certification process by recognizing a person’s experience or expertise. No further details were given as to what that entails. McCrory also wants the state to step back from standardized tests.
"We want to distinguish which tests improve teacher performance and which tests simply waste the time of both teachers and students."
And on teacher pay – the governor proposed raising base salary to $35,000 a year. With no mention of how to pay for that increase – or any mention of anything for more experienced teachers.
"The part that jumped out to me was the part when the governor said he wants to make North Carolina a teaching destination," says Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg.
"You’re not going to get there when you eliminate the teaching fellows program. Eliminate incentives for teachers to get masters degrees. Eliminate thousands of teacher assistants and dramatically underpay teachers. That’s not creating a destination for teachers, that’s creating economic stagnation."
And that’s the thing about a speech like the State of the State. It’s all about perspective. Take an issue like taxes.
"North Carolina taxes were among the highest in the Southeast. But working together, working together, these two chambers, we passed historic tax reform that put more money in people’s paycheck," McCrory said.
The state’s non-partisan Fiscal Research Division estimates those cuts to income and corporate tax rates will decrease state revenue by several hundred million this year. But sales tax revenues are up – and supporters, like Republican Senator Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County say the tax cuts are the reason the economy is picking up.
"Our tax reform packages have been very successful in helping us reduce the unemployment and making the North Carolina economy a lot stronger," Rucho said.
"But when it comes to an increase in the dollar amount the state can offer businesses to expand in or relocate to North Carolina, McCrory and Rucho’s perspectives are very different.
"We will submit for your approval a series of tools which will help us beat the competition. Beat the competition for jobs coming to North Carolina," McCrory said.
And Rucho’s response:
"That means something like a teacher salary increase, or more money for the courts or taking care of the prisons. They suffer because of the fact that we’re using money to lure businesses to North Carolina."
Rucho also questions the governor’s proposal to borrow $1.2 billion to build new roads, rail lines and other infrastructure programs.
"You know, it's awful great to say yes. It would be nice to be able to do it but you’ve got to be able to afford it," Rucho said.
But perhaps the most controversial McCrory proposal of the night concerned Medicaid.
"As we continue to review health care options for the uninsured, we are exploring North Carolina based options that will help those who cant help themselves while encouraging those who can," McCrory said.
That is a thinly veiled reference to possibly expand Medicaid – the government-funded insurance program for the poor and disabled. It’s a third rail for many North Carolina Republicans – which is perhaps why the governor was quite careful with his choice of words.
"If we bring a proposal and come up with a proposal and determine the proposal is best for North Carolina to cover the uninsured, it must protect North Carolina tax payers," the governor said.
Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg, is not enthusiastic. He serves as vice chairman of the Senate committee on health care. He believes an overhaul of Medicaid needs to happen, but as for expansion?
"Well, and I’m going to be the politician here. It depends on how you define it," Tarte says, laughing.
Tarte says an expansion that just increases the number of people who qualify for Medicaid isn't likely to get far.
"Are their options that allow us to tap the resources of the federal government that funds some of this, without obligating the state to further debt and having a broader coverage, there’s some ideas out there that could work."
Senator Rucho disagrees.
"The issue of Medicaid expansion, I would say to you, would likely be a very difficult task."
But an overhaul of the current Medicaid system, he says, that is another story. Again, it’s all about perspective.