There's Still Much For Conservatives To Do

    Publisher's note: This post was originally published in Civitas's online edition.

    The current legislative session has been hailed in most quarters as a success, yet much remains to be done. A look at what happened (or didn't happen) will highlight issues that conservatives must continue to address. And that includes long-term fiscal trends.

    Of course, it all must be kept in perspective. The Short Session is meant to focus on budget updates, so other measures may not make it to the finish line. Nevertheless, areas of concern include the following.

Disappointments under the dome

    First, the General Assembly failed to rein in excessive regulation, a real burden on the state's economy. The foremost of the bills considered was HB 169, the Regulatory Reduction Act of 2016. But the House and Senate couldn't agree on a final version of such reforms, ending hopes of cutting government red tape this year.

    Also falling by the wayside was a bill to put three constitutional amendments up for a referendum vote. HB 3 would have allowed voters to choose whether to put a 5.5 percent cap on the state income tax, set limits on eminent domain, and affirm the right to hunt and fish in the state.

    Many conservatives were interested in these ideas. Lower taxes promote greater job growth and economic prosperity - opportunities especially beneficial to low-skilled, lower-income people on the margins of employment. Eminent domain power has been abused in the past and can unfairly compel people to give up their private property. And hunting and fishing are traditional pastimes in the Old North State.

    However, the measure was sent to the House Rules Committee, which is generally a graveyard for legislation, and that proved to be the case here.

    Conservatives also were disappointed that the legislature weakened a cap on state funding for mass transit projects, which forces people all over the state to pay for boondoggles that serve limited areas. The legislature raised the cap on state funding for such schemes from a flat $500,000 to 10 percent of the costs.

    Second Amendment supporters were frustrated about the failure of a proposed bill that would have taken steps toward eliminating the need for a permit to conceal a handgun.

    HB 1148, sponsored by Rep. Larry Pittman (R-Cabarrus), would have authorized a referendum on whether to open up concealed carry in the state to any U.S. citizen who is 21 years old and meets the qualifications for obtaining a concealed handgun permit. But that measure also died in the House Rules Committee.

    A Senate-passed bill that the House left untouched was a bill to give teeth to an existing state law requiring local governments to work with the federal governments on immigration violation investigations.

    The bill would have penalized "sanctuary cities" by withholding Powell Bill and school construction funds if the cities and counties are stonewalling federal immigration authorities.

Missteps in education

    During the shuffling between committee meetings and holding session, some promising education reforms failed to pass. This included a bill that would have given students the opportunity to choose between a traditional mathematics sequence Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, or the Common Core math now taught in public schools. Also disappointing was the failure of legislation requiring background checks on prospective teachers.

    Although the final budget addressed the thorny problem of teacher pay, three other legislative actions in education were less defensible:

  • Teacher bonuses: The budget provided $4.3 million for a two-year teacher pilot program that will pay teachers $50 (up to $2,000 a year) for each student who takes either Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses and achieves certain minimum scores on College Board tests. However, the value and validity of AP and IB courses have been called into question for years. The prevalence of AP and IB courses also increases the College Board's already heavy influence on what is taught and tested in North Carolina classrooms.
  • The budget also provided $500,000 to reimburse UNC-Chapel Hill for penalties it was charged because the campus exceeded the 18 percent cap on out-of-state students. The reimbursement undercuts the authority of the UNC Board of Governors to set tuition policy, is a slap in the face to North Carolina taxpayers and sets a dangerous precedent of treating one UNC campus differently than others.
  • Legislation lowered performance grades scores from a 10-point scale to a 15-point scale for the next three years. The legislation widens the band for each letter grade but also lowers the floor for failure from 60 to 40 percent. Lowering the score on failure is never a good thing.

Ominous trends

    Finally, to look at the big picture, here are three numbers you likely didn't see in news coverage that you should keep in mind:

  • $5.5 billion - This was the size of the state budget 30 years ago, a drop in the bucket compared to the $22.3 billion for this year's budget plan. The state budget is now four times larger than it was 30 years ago. And this cannot be explained away by the state's population growth or inflation, as we'll see in the next point.
  • 42 percent - This is the increase in per capita, inflation-adjusted state spending growth over those 30 years. In other words, the state budget now spends 42 percent more money per person in North Carolina compared to 30 years ago - even after adjusting for inflation. Keep this in mind next time a liberal progressive insists that state government has been "cut to the bone." And this does not account for the even more rapid growth in federal government dollars flowing into the state.
  • 66 percent - The share of General Fund spending devoted to state worker salary, benefits and retiree pensions and benefits. (This amounts to roughly $14.5 billion). If you want to know where your state tax dollars go, two-thirds of every dollar goes to pay state government workers and retirees. Health care expenses for workers and retirees, along with growing pension liabilities, are rising rapidly and represent a growing recurring spending commitment.

    These are ominous trends that sooner or later must be addressed. The General Assembly gets its next shot at doing so in January.

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