One of the more hopeful signs in the troubling political debate in North Carolina these days comes not from the finger-pointing budget dispute in Raleigh but from Mount Airy of all places — at a meeting of the local Rotary club there last week.
Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker was the guest speaker and according to the Mount Airy News, she told the audience that there were five core parts of economic progress necessary for growth — “superior medical facilities; successful educational facilities; incentives conducive to attracting new businesses; balanced offerings in the areas of arts, tourism and culture; and a high quality of life in the community.”
Putting controversial incentives aside, that’s not a bad list and it is also notable for what is not on it. Decker did not mention taxes or regulations or unemployment insurance cuts or any of the other talking points that we usually hear from anti-government conservatives about the way to create jobs in North Carolina.
Instead, Decker’s approach can be summarized in one word: Investments. We need to make more strategic investments in health care, education and job training, the arts, and improving our quality of life if we are serious about creating jobs and a having a growing and prosperous state.
But state lawmakers have been doing just the opposite in recent years, slashing budgets for education at all levels, firing teacher assistants, leaving schools without textbooks and universities with fewer classes and higher tuition.
State leaders have demonized Medicaid and refused to expand it, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without health care while also considering kicking vulnerable people off the program who are currently on it. Support for the UNC’s flagship medical school and cancer center has been reduced.
Clean air and water and open public spaces are essential elements of a high quality of life but environmental protections have been severely weakened. There’s been some lip service about the role of the arts but there have been no new bold investments to back it up.
That sad state of affairs continues in the current back and forth between House and Senate leaders trying to come up with a final budget agreement. The two sides are stalemated over how big of a raise to give teachers and what to cut to pay for it.
Teachers certainly deserve a significant salary increase but not—as the Senate proposes—at the expense of firing thousands of teacher assistants and kicking people with dementia off of Medicaid and into street.
At least House leaders and Gov. Pat McCrory are standing up to those ridiculous suggestions. But the budget legislative leaders passed last summer that McCrory enthusiastically signed slashed funding for 3,800 teacher assistants and 5,200 teachers, all to pay for a massive tax cut that went primarily to the wealthy and large corporations.
Simply standing up against another round of what even House Speaker Thom Tillis calls draconian cuts isn’t enough. It’s time to rethink the priorities in Raleigh, to repeal the next round of tax breaks set to take effect January 1.
That could end this budget dispute by freeing up revenue to give teachers a raise without firing anybody or kicking anyone off of Medicaid.
Then before next session, lawmakers and Governor McCrory could get together and work on a new plan for creating jobs and an era of true economic prosperity. It shouldn’t be hard for McCrory to find one.
His commerce secretary seems to have a list handy.
Growth and prosperity don’t come from slashing and burning. It takes investing and building. That seemed to be the message for the Mount Airy Rotary Club. The rest of the state needs to hear it too.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of NC Policy Watch.