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Opinion Letters N.C.’s fiscal mess cannot be fixed overnight

On Jan. 26, 2011, members of North Carolina’s General Assembly took their oath of office. I was humbled and honored to stand with those who swore the oath. The speed with which we began our official duties was unprecedented. We did not have the luxury of time to waste. We were faced with a deficit of $2.5 billion, $7 billion in debt, and $32.8 billion of unfunded liability for retiree health care. In addition, in the last two years, North Carolina has borrowed $2.3 billion from the federal government to pay for unemployment benefits.

The interest we pay on that loan is $100 million each year. North Carolina accepted $1.3 billion of federal stimulus money that was used to delay cuts in the education budget. Even against those odds, we had promised the taxpayers we would get North Carolina’s fiscal house in order and deliver a balanced budget without raising taxes or reinstating the “temporary” sales and income surcharge taxes put in place by the previous Legislature. The focus, intensity and work that followed were a result of our commitment to keep those promises and our dedication to funding legitimate functions of government at appropriate levels.

North Carolina’s fiscal mess did not happen overnight and the Legislature was not so naive as to believe it could be resolved overnight. The grim reality we faced was that good programs would have their budgets reduced and some would no longer be funded. During the process of making those decisions, legislators received thousands of visits, calls, and letters from constituents who wanted to make certain we understood the needs and wants of individuals and organizations funded by state government. Many of those visits, calls, and letters were from educators and organizations representing them.

I recently met with one such group from my district. My goal for this forum was to have a respectful conversation about education and the realities of the budget. I believe the points that follow are key to continuing the conversation:

• The bipartisan budget passed by the Legislature reduced education spending ½ of one percent more than the Governor’s proposal – hardly the draconian cut claimed by some.

• There is a flaw in the position of some that more money will improve our education system.

• During the last 40 years, U.S. per pupil spending (adjusted for inflation) doubled with essentially no improvement in outcomes.

• N.C. per pupil spending by the state ranks 24th or 25th among the 50 states – in the middle.

• N.C. has a 40 percent drop out rate and almost 70 percent of incoming college freshmen require remedial work before they can progress to college level courses.

• N.C. needs a new paradigm that does not include dumping society’s problems at the classroom door, expecting teachers to fix them and leaving less time for instructional programs

• K-12 is 37 percent of the N.C. budget. The total education budget is 55-60 percent of the state’s budget.

• The 2011-2012 budget funds an additional 1,100 teacher positions for grades K-3.

• Over the next three years, class sizes will be reduced to a ratio of 1:15 for grades K-3

During my 10 years as a Macon County Commissioner there was not a capital facilities project approved for which I did not vote. In my last three years of service the Macon Board of Commissioners approved $43 million for capital improvements in Macon County Schools. By the start of the 2012-2013 school year, and for the first time in 35 years, there will be no mobile units housing our students. This has been accomplished while keeping one of the lowest ad valorem tax rates in the state. I am proud to have been part of a board that has made education and fiscal responsibility high priorities. These are the same priorities I have taken with me to Raleigh where I serve with other legislators who share my goal for North Carolina to emerge as a leader in education.

I invite the citizens of District 50 to contact me personally to continue the conversation and share their suggestions as we pursue that goal.

Jim Davis
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