I was truly surprised by the conflicting emotions that I grappled with as the General Assembly approached our final budget vote last week. I was truly humbled by the task of casting a single “yes” or “no” vote on an incredibly complex, 260-page document that will impact more than 9 million North Carolinians.
I was very happy that massive pressure from people all over the state created a sense of urgency for giving teachers a pay raise. I felt relieved that the final budget won’t result in any teachers’ assistants losing their jobs nor any Medicaid patients losing their benefits. Both had been proposed in earlier budget negotiations.
However, my major emotion was sadness. I simply don’t believe that this budget addresses North Carolina’s needs. In fact, it perpetuates some major problems. In the end, I could not vote for what was put before us.
The budget’s teacher pay raises drew all of the media headlines. What did not get discussed much was that the raises are part of a dramatic change in how we pay teachers. Based on this budget, the teacher pay scale will now have 5- year “bands” rather than single-year “steps”. What that means is that teachers will only get a raise every five years unless the General Assembly changes the scale again in the future. During floor debate on the budget, I asked whether any of us would recommend to our children that they enter a profession where they couldn’t receive a raise more than once every five years?
The amount of the raises has been confusing as well. While the average teacher raise has been described as 7%, even the Governor pointed out that a portion of that raise is longevity pay that many teachers are already receiving and the real average raise is closer to 5.5%. The raises themselves are heavily weighted towards beginning teachers. While some young teachers will get a raise of 18.5%, some veteran teachers get raises as small as 0.3% ($143, to be exact).
One thing that legislators from both parties seemed to agree upon earlier in the year was that we would reinstate bonus pay for teachers who have a Master’s degree. Unfortunately, that provision is not in the budget, and no one from the budget negotiation team explained why not.
Earlier this year, I drew attention to other states raiding North Carolina for our teaching talent. Unfortunately, that’s not going to change. On the morning of the budget vote, I talked with a teacher who had left North Carolina to teach in Texas. She’ll get a raise of about $20,000. Even with this year’s raises, she could stay in North Carolina for another 20 years and still not make what she’s going to make in Texas this coming year.
While I’d love to see North Carolina make bigger investments in education, I also know that most North Carolinians don’t want to see their taxes go up. That makes for difficult choices, no matter who is in charge. Which is why it’s telling that four Republicans joined all of the House Democrats in voting against the budget. The powerful chairwoman of the House Finance committee (which sets tax rates) publicly stated that she voted against the budget because it is not sustainable. This year, North Carolina took in about $700 Million less than expected, and she knows that next year that deficit is probably going to be closer to $1 Billion dollars.
How can anyone support a budget that has a billion dollar hole in it? Democrats and Republicans have very different ideas about how to address that hole, but to support a budget with that big of a hole is just bad governance. What will happen? Will we have to lay off the same teachers that received this year’s raise?
In the end, my sadness turned to anger thinking about the hole we’re in. Nearly every other state in the country has turned the corner after the recession and many are making investments in education with budget surpluses. We’re still stuck trying to make the best out of a bad situation. This budget is an election-year band-aid. North Carolinians deserve better.
This column was originally published in Graig’s monthly column in the News of Orange.