THE RALEIGH REPORT
March 3, 2015
It’s been a tough few weeks in Orange County. The passing of Coach Dean Smith followed so closely by the murder of three talented young people made the world seem terribly awry. Coach Smith reminded us of what’s right and good about life. This quiet, self-effacing, brilliant man defined the Carolina Way – what one person described as “being great without sacrificing being good.” We can honor Coach Smith by seeking to live up to his example. The tragedy that followed was about all that is wrong and destructive in the world - the senselessness of hate and violence. These three young Muslims were good examples of the Carolina Way – working to develop their talents and taking time to give back to people in need. We can honor their lives by taking up some of the slack created by their loss.
The bitter cold weather and icy roads that came next forced us inside to warm fires and hot soup where it felt safe. The NC House Speaker even ordered an unprecedented 4 extra days off so members wouldn’t have to drive on the dangerously slick roads.
During the time off, I studied the education budget and the changes Republicans made last year in the historical per pupil approach. That is, we paid the same amount for each student and, to begin the budget process, we added funding for expected new students (enrollment growth) on a per pupil basis before we added money for new programs or increased salaries. Even if we didn’t increase the per pupil amount, the education budget grew because we had more students.
The enrollment growth approach worked so well for public schools, we expanded the concept to cover the UNC System and the Community College System.
Last year, Republicans eliminated enrollment growth for public education. An increase in any amount was seen as a win for public education – even though the funding per pupil was considerably smaller. It’s a slick way to claim an increase for public schools when educators had to cut essential services just to keep the doors open. The results: increases in class size, too few or outdated textbooks, teachers leaving the state, less physical education and art, etc.
This year, Republicans are changing the starting point for the UNC and Community College Systems and other programs. They aren’t increasing the starting point to account for new enrollees. The changes overall are so significant that the base budget – the starting point - for the next budget year (FY 2015-16) is actually $213 million less than it was for the current year (FY 2014-15). Even if they approve a budget for next year that is smaller than what they approved for this year, they can claim an increase.
On January 16, President Tom Ross announced his involuntary retirement as President of the UNC System – due to take effect in 2016. No other person in the state is held in higher regard that Tom Ross. His record of public service is impeccable. He led the UNC System through serious budget cuts with grace and prepared for the future with a long range plan that keeps Carolina on track as a worldwide leader and the System ready to educate our next generation. Thank you, President Ross.
On February 17, a UNC BOG committee recommended closing the UNC-CH Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity – just at a time when, although the economy seems to be recovering - the wage gap is growing, the middle class is shrinking and the poverty rate in North Carolina is growing with 26% of our children now living in poverty.
The Gas Tax Proposal
North Carolina has one of the best road and highway systems in the nation; but we also have the 6th highest gas tax in the nation. That’s because we fund most of our roads at the state level rather than at the local level as is done in most states.
The Good Road movement started in 1902 and came to fruition in 1921 when the NC General Assembly approved a state highway system funded by a gas tax and licensing fees, “Because: The success of the agricultural industrial, economic and social life of our State depends largely on transportation.” http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/nchist-newcentury/4971. Harriet Morehead Berry, from Hillsborough, was one of the movers and shakers in this effort. A highway marker in her honor is near NC 86 on I-40. http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?sp=search&k=Markers&sv=G-100
Governor McCrory has proposed using bond money to repair existing road and bridges and build new ones over the next 25 years. The increased revenue from economic growth would help pay off the bonds. Senate Republicans have proposed raising the tax on gas and setting a minimum – 35cents/gal- below which it couldn’t fall and a maximum – 40- cents/gal above which it couldn’t rise. That sounds good; but with falling gas prices the tax would have fallen to about 30 cents/gal sometime this summer.
Under this proposal, lower income workers will spend a larger percent of their income communing to work than higher income workers, so it continues the trend of shifting the tax burden onto working families, and NC will move from having the 6th highest to 4th highest gas tax in the nation to the 4th highest.
Unless this bill is amended to make it more fair across all income groups – through, for example, a mileage tax, Democrats favor using bond money.
Medicaid Expansion Update
We may see a Republican Medicaid expansion bill later this year. Several House Republicans are working on bill that has provisions approve by CMS for other Republican-led states, including modest premiums, co-pays based on ability to pay, a work and/or health assessment requirement, and using Medicaid dollars to buy private sector insurance or set up a health savings account. NC House and Senate Democrats are also working on Medicaid expansion bills that will likely incorporate some of these features. Expect those bills to be introduced in the next few weeks.
Medicaid Reform Update
To better manage the cost of Medicaid, NC Senate Republicans want to contract with a commercial managed care company- and give control of provider rates, eligibility and covered services to a private sector company. NC House Republicans and Democrats want to build on our current system – with the General Assembly setting rates, eligibility and services and controlling cost by enrolling patients in a medical home and letting our own Community Care of North Carolina (CCNC) manage their care. It’s too early to make a firm prediction but the two sides are moving toward building on the system we have.
As always, thank you for your support of my work in Raleigh as your representative. Please let me know of your position on issues, your suggestions for legislation and your requests for help.