Enough is enough at the General Assembly

By: - August 13, 2015 1:49 pm


Senator Tom Apodaca was partially right Wednesday afternoon when he lamented the inability of legislative leaders to reach a final agreement on a state budget six weeks after it was due and just days before schools start across North Carolina with funding for teachers and teacher assistants still up in the air.

“Enough is enough,” Apodaca bellowed on the Senate floor.

But then he urged his colleagues to vote against a resolution to keep government operating for another two weeks while negotiators try to come up with a final version of a spending plan for the next two years.

Apodaca apparently was ready to shut down state government out of frustration with House leaders, but that’s no solution and only a handful of his fellow Senators agreed with him. The continuing budget resolution passed and lawmakers have two more weeks to pass a budget.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way of course. Republicans promised a more transparent and efficient government when they took over and they have been running the General Assembly for five years and have been working with a Republican governor for the last three.

Efficiency and transparency have hardly been hallmarks of their reign. Supporters of the Republican majority have been scrambling to circulate a chart showing that past legislatures have often missed the June 30th budget deadline, and that’s true.

But the chart also shows that this is already the latest budget in 13 years and with one exception, the latest two-year budget since at least 1961.

And it’s not just a show of ineptness and inefficiency. The delay has real consequences as school officials are getting ready for students to return next week with no idea how many teachers or teacher assistants they can afford to pay.

The Senate budget slashes 8,500 TAs while providing more funding for teachers to reduce class size in early grades while the House budget leaves TAs in the classroom and provides an across the board salary increase.

TAs are also bus drivers at many schools, causing many principals to wonder how they will get students to campus if the Senate budget prevails and teacher assistants are laid off.

And Apodaca’s thinks he’s frustrated.

The budget impasse and two-week extension of the continuing resolution also come after lawmakers took an unprecedented week of vacation in early July after missing the budget deadline and after legislative leaders attended conferences in San Diego and Boston while the budget was overdue.

And to make matters worse, Apodaca and his fellow Senators unveiled a series of unwise and controversial constitutional amendments last week and rushed them through committee without a public hearing or even testimony about what the amendments would mean for the state.

The most controversial one, the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights, would place artificial spending limits on future legislatures and would threaten funding for education, teacher pay, early childhood programs and other vital state services.

The full Senate passed the regressive amendments on to the House and they are now part of the swirl of activity that dominates a General Assembly as it careens towards an eventual budget agreement and adjournment.

No one saw the constitutional amendment package coming. No one had a chance to prepare for the committee discussion of proposals that could dramatically change North Carolina for the next generation.

Senate leaders simply decided to rush it through while budget negotiations were proceeding, forcing House leaders to respond and even hold a Republican Caucus meeting to discuss the amendments.

And the Senate’s not the only playing dangerous and nontransparent games.

Rep. Rob Bryan is working behind the scenes on legislation pushed by national right-wing forces that could turn over struggling public schools to for-profit charter school operators who would have the freedom to fire all the teachers.

That proposal has yet to be unveiled publicly and could appear at any moment, with no time for thorough debate or public input.

It’s time to stop all the secret scurrying around and slamming never before seen legislation through committees and floor votes.

It’s time to pass a budget that keeps TAs in the classroom and gives teachers a meaningful raise and adequately funds state services. And it’s time for lawmakers to go home.

Enough is enough indeed.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066