North Carolina lawmakers are back in Raleigh this week, getting down to the serious business of running the state (and unlike the federal government, we hope, keeping it running full time).
There is much to be done and this edition of the General Assembly will look a little different from the last. Republicans are still running the place, but their grip isn’t as firm as it has been since 2010. They lost some seats in the November election and no longer can use a party-line vote to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes. Doing that will require Democratic votes now, which means some of the extreme legislation that was hammered into place in recent sessions might not have a chance in this one. Our elected representatives may have to do something we haven’t often seen in Raleigh: Negotiate, compromise and even cooperate.
That may mean that legislative action may come closer to where most North Carolinians live: Near the middle of the road, politically.
The lawmakers’ first and most important task will be passing a two-year budget for the state. We’re fortunate, again this year, that state revenue collections are once again running above expectation. But some caution about that extra cash is wise. During the Great Recession, budgets were slashed and so were state services. Education was hard hit. Many of the cuts were never restored when the economy and tax revenues improved. Our schools remain underfunded and teacher salaries still sit in the bottom quarter of the barrel — they were near the national median before the recession. We need to do a better job of funding public education and that priority needs to guide the development of the budget this year.
As we near the two-year anniversary of the discovery of GenX and related chemicals in the Cape Fear River and across a broad swath of land around the Chemours plant in Bladen County, and we continue to see fluctuating levels of 1,4 dioxane in our drinking water, the General Assembly needs to pay considerably more attention to environmental protection.
We also need legislators to pay more heed to residents’ health care needs. North Carolina is one of what now is only a handful of states still resisting expansion of Medicaid to cover the state’s “working poor,” most of whom are uninsured and get their health care in the most expensive possible way — from hospital emergency rooms, which must treat patients even if they are penniless. This has put a heavy burden on hospitals, especially in rural areas, where they have cut back and in some cases closed. This should be the year Medicaid is expanded and our health care system grows with it.
This is the time to invest in North Carolina and protect it. We hope our legislators can keep those priorities in mind as they get to work this week.