Opinion: Daily Journal

Short Session Resembles Family Fight

This legislative session has reminded me of watching my in-laws fight. It was loud, boisterous, impassioned, argumentative, at times totally unreasonable, accusatory, crazy, painful, and yet sometimes funny to watch — predictable and surprising.

It seemed to go on forever, but it hasn’t been the longest ever (slightly more than 150 legislative days) or most harrowing (with about 465 bills considered). The lawmakers seemed a little embarrassed and even apologetic at times. They promised it wouldn’t happen again, but we all know that it will.

Grateful for the principles they adhere to, appreciative of their hard work, and thankful for the end results, we close the door carefully and walk away cautiously from the main portion of the 2014 short session. (Lawmakers have not adjourned. They could return to action for a brief time in the weeks ahead, then reconvene after the November election to tackle issues such as Medicaid reform.)

It has been the most transparent session in recent memory, with many negotiations that were previously conducted behind closed doors held in very public meetings. Public exchanges between the governor and legislative leaders, often making the pages of daily newspapers or the airwaves, made for high drama.

And then there were protesters, hundreds of lobbyists, stakeholders. special-interest groups, and citizen coalitions egging them on, cajoling and cheering. The advantage of transparency is we get to see government work; the disadvantage is we have to watch government work.

Democracy is not always pretty.

Lower taxes lead to economic growth. Economic growth leads to job creation, less dependency on government programs, and a circle of prosperity. Tax reforms put in place over the last three years are starting to work — with lower unemployment, greater job creation, and other signs of an improving North Carolina economy.

Momentum is critical to recovery and long-term economic health. And that means creating jobs.
Decluttering the tax code means a simpler, fairer system and additional revenue.

A confusing, inconsistently applied business privilege tax will sunset in 2015. Despite disagreement among tax experts, a new excise tax will apply to the vapor in e-cigarettes. Unclaimed savings bonds will go into an escheat fund and be used for education.

Last year, 48 of 300 special tax breaks, exemptions, and loopholes in the tax code were eliminated. Others are set to expire this year and next.

The loudest debate in education centered around how much to pay teachers — with a commitment to raise the base salary closer to the national average. And they were successful.

But the more significant debate actually was not about how much but how. Gov. Pat McCrory advocated for performance pay based on a career pathway enabling good teachers to increase their salary based on student performance. Other measures rewarded master’s degrees in advanced subject-matter studies, added pay for high-demand subjects, reduced the current step schedule based on years of service rather than quality, and added performance pay to recruit, retain, and reward good teachers.

Rewarding quality and holding teachers accountable for student performance are what real education reform is about and will continue in 2015. The Department of Public Instruction balked and complained, but Common Core State Standards are out; a new standards commission will review and evaluate educational standards striving for the most rigorous in the country, ensuring only the best for North Carolina students.

School choice is thriving. Despite court challenges, low-income students will have an opportunity to attend a private school of their choice beginning this fall. More than 5,500 applications were received for 2,400 available spots included in last year’s budget.

Charter schools continue to expand, with 26 new charter schools opening this fall, the largest one-year expansion ever.

Energy policy should focus on science, technology, and common sense, not scare tactics and alarmism. Regulations and rules were defined more clearly for hydraulic fracturing. Test drills will begin this fall, and permitting for wells and operations could be issued as early as March 2015.

Energy exploration and shale gas development will lead to lower energy costs, a significant economic driver.

Good things have been done. Teachers got raises, the economy is starting to improve, more people are working, and almost everyone got a tax cut. Now if everyone can just get along. At least through the holidays.

Becki Gray (@beckigray) is vice president for outreach at the John Locke Foundation.