Last updated: May 03. 2014 12:23PM - 866 Views
Chris Fitzsimon Contributing columnist

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State Rep. Jon Hardister says that he has come to regret the vote he cast for the state budget last year because of the cuts it made to public schools and the lack of a salary increase for teachers.

Hardister, a Republican from Guilford County, told an audience at an education forum in Chapel Hill last week that he had second thoughts about his vote after “listening to parents and visiting classrooms and experiencing firsthand how hard the teachers work.”

Putting aside the question of why Hardister didn’t already realize how hard educators were working, his acknowledgment of his mistake illustrates the dilemma that Republican legislative leaders face in this summer’s General Assembly session that begins in two weeks.

People across the state are angry about the cuts to education made in the last few years and it’s not just teachers who are upset. Parents are mad too, as they see their children’s schools without enough textbooks to go around and teacher assistants missing from first and second grade classrooms.

And then there’s the miserably low teacher pay that’s prompting educators to leave the state for higher salaries or leave the profession altogether.

Despite the carefully crafted talking points that claim otherwise, key legislators know they made deep cuts to classrooms last year and they know that people aren’t happy about it. Several lawmakers have been confronted at community meetings about the cuts and usually try to dispute the numbers or blame Medicaid or change the subject.

But that’s not working any more, and it certainly won’t work if the budget passed this summer doesn’t restore some of the cuts and give every teacher a pay increase.

But the state revenue picture is hardly rosy, despite all the bluster about the alleged Carolina Comeback. The legislature’s Fiscal Research Division reported recently that personal income tax collections are more than $200 million below projected levels because of the tax cuts passed last year.

Some of the changes designed to help make up the difference won’t take effect until taxpayers file their 2014 returns. And that doesn’t include the $438 million loss in revenue already built into the budget because of the tax cuts for the wealthy and out of state corporations that state lawmakers passed last session.

That doesn’t leave much for teacher raises or textbooks or teacher assistants. Governor Pat McCrory and legislative leaders have already pledged to give starting teachers a raise and say any increase for veteran teachers will depend on state revenues.

But they can’t afford the political heat that more education cuts and denying a raise to two-thirds of the state’s teachers will bring. So the scrambling is going on behind the scenes to come up with a way to do more to address the public outrage.

Reportedly budget writers at the General Assembly and in McCrory’s office are considering using a combination of money left unspent in the budget and funding for teaching positions that will revert back to the state at the end of the year to give teachers a small raise next year.

The budget funds teaching positions, not actual teachers, and the high turnover rate means more young teachers were hired at lower salaries than the people they replaced, creating some one-time savings.

Combining those savings and the money left on the table last year may provide enough money to give every teacher a small pay increase if legislative leaders are willing to violate their own budget rules and use one time money to pay for the ongoing expense of higher salaries.

The plan would in effect use money saved when teachers leave to give teachers who stayed a raise for one year. It’s the sort of gimmick that Republicans roundly criticized when Democrats proposed it, but the folks currently in charge don’t seem too interested in fiscal integrity these days.

It’s all about addressing the accurate perception that they chose tax cuts for millionaires and corporations last year over teachers and students. They could rethink that decision and at least cancel the additional tax reductions for the wealthy built into next year’s budget.

But that would mean actually making public schools a priority and there’s little chance of that. They just want us to think that they believe that education is most important. It is an election year after all.

Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of North Carolina Policy Watch.

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