Thanks to a Republican-shaped budget in last year's General Assembly, North Carolina's public schools and universities have taken unprecedented budget cuts, forcing local school systems to downsize and impacting classrooms and the quality of education provided to young people. University classes are larger, with some schools facing job cuts if an unexpected repair bill arrives.
This is not what public education in North Carolina has been about for several generations and through the administrations of a number of "education governors." Quality schools, in fact, have helped to reshape this state, to raise the horizons of its young people, improve its workforce and help it in the drive to recruit industry that is both good for the state's economic base and for people who are ready to work.
Gov. Beverly Perdue, recognizing the slash-and-burn effect of the GOP budget, has taken the bravest step any politician, especially one running for re-election, can take. She has called for an increase in the state sales tax of three-quarters of a cent on the dollar, which would raise about $850 million a year. That would restore some of the destruction Republicans did to public education. The governor calls it "a fight for our children's future" and she's right.
Cuts that hurt
Republicans could have left this figure in the budget. It was already there, and most people didn't know it. But House Speaker Thom Tillis, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and their GOP colleagues were determined to let that tax expire no matter what. "What" in this case meant a budget crunched by recession. "What" also happens to mean the end of the last of federal stimulus money this year, money that is supporting 5,000 school jobs.
And how did Republicans respond to Perdue's act of raw political courage and responsible leadership? Sadly, exactly as it was expected they would.
Speaker Tillis said the tax "would negatively impact every level of society." The speaker knows full well that this tax, while regressive in that it hits the poor harder than the rich, is small enough on an individual basis that there were few complaints about it and not much of a groundswell of support to let it expire.
And just what does he think the impact of GOP budget cuts has been "on every level of society"? That's a question Republicans don't want to answer, because they know everything from education to health care to the effectiveness of agencies that serve the public directly has been affected.
They charged on
Give them this. Even when they knew their budget would be harmful in many ways, and even when they knew public opinion polls showed that North Carolinians supported taxes that would support education, the GOP leaders charged on as if winning a majority in both houses of the General Assembly after 100 years had been a result of divine intervention and not electoral politics.
Berger pronounced Perdue's idea "dead on arrival" at the legislature. Now there's some statesmanship for you.
And already, GOP political operatives were salivating over the prospect of labeling Perdue as pro-taxes with the election approaching.
If she is so labeled by some, she can wear it proudly, with the knowledge that she did the right if not the opportunistic thing for the school children and university students of North Carolina.
When that federal money is gone, and with the state's economy recovering at a slow pace, what will Republicans do to fill in the gaps? How will they help the working families of North Carolina? What positive ideas, for a change, do they have for the people they are supposed to represent?
This is a confrontation over a generation's future. So far, the lines are clear: guts versus political expediency.
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