RALEIGH — As they head to Raleigh for the start of the General Assembly’s short session on Wednesday, members of Robeson County’s state delegation, all Democrats, say their top priority will be to ensure that teachers and state workers get decent raises.
The five members of the delegation — Sen. Michael Walters, and Reps. Garland Pierce, Charles Graham, Ken Waddell and Ken Goodman — all say that teacher and state worker salary increases will be the top issues state legislators must address as they move through a short session that Walters thinks will end the Fourth of July.
“I think legislators are committed to finding money for teacher pay increases,” Walters said. “I think the 2 percent across the board increase recently recommended by the governor can be achieved.”
On Wednesday, Gov. Pat McCrory proposed an average 2 percent pay raise for veteran teachers and flat $1,000 raises for other state workers. According to The Associated Press, both Phil Berger, the Senate leader, and House Speaker Thom Tillis have said they expect that the legislature will offer more pay raises to teachers and state workers beyond previously announced increases for early career teachers.
Local legislators say that it will not be easy to pay for the raises when the state already has a budget shortfall of more than $450 million.
“My No. 1 priority is making sure there is support for education,” said Graham, a former educator. “We’re having good quality teachers leave and go to work in other states or choose a new career path.”
Graham said all state employees need to be sufficiently compensated for the work they do.
“We have to show respect for all of our employees,” he said. “They are hard-working people and they deserve to have consideration from the General Assembly in regards to some kind of bonus pay.”
Waddell, a retired teacher, said the proposed 2 percent raise isn’t enough.
“There needs to be at least a 2 percent raise for teachers,” he said. “I think the step plan needs to be put back in effect.”
Waddell thinks legislators will go along with making money available once again to educators who advance their careers by obtaining a master’s degree.
Pierce, the senior member of the delegation, hopes efforts to increase teacher pay won’t become too tied down in politics.
“The legislature has been tough on education this year,” Pierce said.
All of Robeson County’s legislative delegation told The Robesonian not to expect much of major significance to the region during the short session. Especially in the House, the representatives said, it is uncertain exactly what issues and bills will be brought before legislators by Speaker Thom Tillis, the GOP’s U.S. Senate candidate.
“A lot of this session will be political,” Pierce said. “It will be all about I did this and I stopped that.”
None of the legislators give much hope of the GOP controlled House and Senate giving the OK for Robeson County to hold a referendum asking voters to approve an additional 1-cent sales tax to be used to construct a new jail and a technology high school. Construction of the jail is estimated at $40 million, and the high school construction would cost about $44 million.
“Most Republicans have pledged for no tax increases,” Pierce said.
Walters agreed with Pierce that it will be difficult to get support to allow the referendum, but said the issue is “still being discussed” in the Senate.
Although education issues will be in the spotlight during the short session, all of Robeson County’s legislators said that in addition to “tweaking” the state budget there will be attention given to economic development and environmental issues. These include an economic bill in the Senate relating to “economic prosperity zones”; fracking and offshore oil exploration; disposal of coal ash generated by utility companies; transportation; and public-private economic development partnerships.
Goodman said that he hopes a bill he introduced that would provide tax credits for small businesses of 50 workers or less will be considered during the short session. The tax credits, he said, would serve as incentives for small businesses wanting to locate or expand their operations in the state’s rural counties.
Pierce said he is currently looking closely at some job development bills he might sponsor, as well as an education bill that would address issues surrounding the long-term effects of young students with criminal records.
Only bills related to the budget and financial issues can be addressed during the short session. New bills addressing other issues will have to wait until the General Assembly convenes for its long session in early 2015.