The writer of Ecclesiastes was correct. For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven. The 2011 and 2013 legislative sessions made, arguably, some of the most dramatic changes in the past century. As this new session of The General Assembly begins its work let us declare that this is a season to govern.
For the first time since 2008, North Carolina’s unemployment rate is below the national average, another indicator that we are recovering from The Great Recession. In response to that recession state spending was cut and our legislative leaders determined the way to economic recovery was to make cuts to personal and corporate income taxes. Financial experts ran models to forecast how these cuts would impact our state, but they were, at best, only projections. Nobody knew for certain their impact but early indications show state revenues are lower than projected. Not sufficiently low to cause panic, but enough to warrant attention. Now isn’t the time to make more major changes to the revenue side of the state budget.
Better governance might consider ways to make government work more effectively. We’ve tried spending more for results and we’ve tried across the board budget cuts when we didn’t think government worked as well as we wanted, but with a $20 billion state budget let’s concentrate on making government work better. Hard as it might be to implement, a proven method would be to return to zero-based budgeting, forcing us to truly identify those programs that work, are priorities and add to our quality of life, while reducing or eliminating those that no longer do so.
Big changes have been made in education recently, rethinking the Common Core Curriculum, starting school vouchers, expanding charter schools and changing teacher pay. It’s time to see how these changes are affecting education before launching other major initiatives. This might be the year to concentrate on how to best measure accountability and performance, especially in the area of testing. Given the impending shortage of teachers we also need to decide how to best attract, retain and compensate excellent teachers.
Changes in election laws, education and personal matters like abortion and gay marriage are making their way through the courts, also dictating a wait-and-see approach rather than plunging into more big changes. The upheaval in the Department of Health and Human Services seems to have abated for the moment and the huge budget overruns in Medicaid spending appear to have stabilized, affording a good opportunity for reasoned reforms without the immediate threat of budget chaos.
North Carolina’s long-neglected infrastructure, especially our highways, will become a crisis if not attended. Since lawmakers don’t have to worry about re-election this year it is the perfect session to address those needs, determine how to fund them and take a plan to voters. There are nagging concerns between urban-rural sections that need deliberation and relationships between state and local governments need improvement. Let’s acknowledge we’re on the same team and work together better.
There is much to be done but this is not the session for major, dramatic changes. It is a time for careful and deliberate consideration. This is the season for making government work for the common good and lawmakers should dedicate this year to governing better.