Question: How does one come to the conclusion that the upcoming General Assembly short session will almost certainly be an extremely partisan, politically charged couple of months?
Answer: When the political claws come out even in the most benign of settings.
Rose Johnson, president of Haywood Community College, organized a legislative brunch for March 26 so that HCC leaders could discuss challenges and legislative priorities. The food was great and the room filled with about 35 to 40 people on a gorgeous spring morning, the kind of people who don’t live in the mountains can only dream about.
Johnson, who is leaving HCC this summer, has had a successful tenure at the school. She’s brought a steady, wizened leadership that has put the college and its students first. And she has made a point of getting involved in the community and encouraging her staff to do the same. This brunch was a perfect example, an opportunity for HCC staff to provide elected leaders with information that could prove valuable once the rubber hits the road during budget negotiations.
After Johnson and the staff gave their presentations on specific points, the elected leaders were invited to speak. Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine, was first, and glancing at an iPad propped up in front him for reference, the man who lists his occupation as a statistician spoke knowledgeably about community colleges and their funding. He also said tax collections for the state were running ahead of budgetary projections by about $150 million. However, he added that it appears that this money would be eaten up by budget overruns in health and human services.
Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, is one of my favorite all-time members of the General Assembly. I’ve been working at newspapers across North Carolina since 1988, and Rapp ranks up there with the smartest, hardest-working legislators I remember. Successful politicians need to know when to vote according to their conscience (party ideology be damned) and when to vote according to the will of the people. Rapp walks that tightrope better than most.
Rapp was second to speak, and he pointed out that in the last legislative session— after the GOP had gained control of the both houses — lawmakers had to make cuts that hurt education, eliminating jobs and opportunities for students. He pointed out that in the two previous years the recession had already forced painful cuts, but what was done last session was much worse.
Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, was next up, and he did not mince words. He squarely blamed the painful cuts to education on the GOP lawmakers and their decision to sunset a half-cent sales tax that would have brought in $1.4 billion. Haire said that, historically, government spending during recessions helps mitigate the pain from private sector reductions.
Haire has been a co-chair of the Appropriations Committee and, after seven terms, is not seeking re-election. He gave a strong denunciation of the job done by the GOP-led legislature. It was pointed and, for Haire, emotional.
Freshman Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, was next, and he said he could not let Haire’s comments pass. “I didn’t know we were giving stump speeches,” he said to begin his remarks.
Davis said that he and the GOP leadership inherited a fiscal disaster that had been created under Democratic leadership, and that tough choices had to be made. He said they had promised that the sales tax would be ended — a promise made back when Democrats passed it, by the way — and that the GOP election win proved that citizens wanted it to expire. Davis also used a phrase I’ve heard him use before, that everyone is going to have to share the sacrifice to get the economy and the state’s fiscal situation back on track. He promised legislative leaders would look at education funding in the upcoming session, but he held out little hope for any measurable increases.
It was an unusual and enlightening meeting. HCC’s needs are great, as are those of other education institutions. This is a setting that is usually highlighted by polite talk with few specifics. But this time the swords came out. The political divide is sharp right now, and there is very little room in the middle. I sincerely hope North Carolina’s public schools, community colleges and university system don’t continue to suffer as this divide widens.