Seven under-recognized bad decisions by the General Assembly

Seven under-recognized bad decisions by the General Assembly

- in Fitzsimon File

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Editor’s Note: The following column has been updated for clarity regarding the tax deduction on the state’s 529 college savings plan.

Most of the heated debate this fall about the decisions made by the folks in charge of the General Assembly for the last few years has focused on a handful of big issues, funding cuts to public schools, new restrictions on abortion services, lower benefits for unemployed workers, the refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, the rush to allow fracking for natural gas in North Carolina, and tax cuts that primarily benefited the wealthy and large corporations.

Those were all big and controversial decisions that understandably garnered the biggest headlines when they were made and continue to dominate most of the discussion about the new, hard right direction in Raleigh.

But there were also host of other, less publicized decisions made by the General Assembly and Governor Pat McCrory that directly affect people’s daily lives that have almost been forgotten in the blur of campaign commercials and propaganda about the education cuts.

In fact, the current leadership in Raleigh has been on a spree of abolishing effective and in many cases award-wining programs and initiatives, after in some cases failing to explain their decisions or even admitting that the programs they eliminated were working.  Here is a list of seven.

1) Lawmakers abolished the nationally recognized N.C. Teaching Fellows program that provided college scholarships for students who agreed to spend at least four years in the classroom. More than 75 percent of Teaching Fellows stay in teaching past their four-year commitment.

No one has yet explained the decision to the end the program that attracts some of the state’s brightest students to teaching which seems especially important at a time when fewer students are entering the profession. After the 2011 session House Speaker Thom Tillis said he was willing to revisit the decision. Not only did that not happen, the current General Assembly and Governor Pat McCrory zeroed out the funding after the current class of fellows graduates.

2) Lawmakers ended all state funding for the state’s drug treatment courts that provide a tough and effective alternative to incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders that actually save the state money.   The courts costs a few thousand dollars for each participant, roughly a tenth of the almost $30,000 year it costs to keep them behind bars.

Numerous studies show the program works. One found that 75 percent of the graduates of drug court were arrest free two years after finishing the program.

It is also one of a handful of programs supported by both prosecutors and advocates for alternatives to incarceration.

In his 2013 State of the State speech to lawmakers, Governor McCrory called on the House and Senate to restore funding for the courts, but they ignored his request and he signed a final budget in 2013 that included no funding. The courts were barely discussed at all in 2014.

3) Lawmakers ended the tax deduction on January 1st for the state’s 529 college savings plan that allowed parents tax-free earnings on deposits in a special account, as long as the money is used to pay for college. Roughly 70,000 North Carolina taxpayers were using that state tax deduction to help stretch their savings for college expenses.

4) Lawmakers ended the state historic preservation tax credit that has promoted $1.5 billion in investment in historic buildings and homes since the late 1990s.  Supporters of the credit point to models that show it created more than 2,000 jobs a year in the state, not to mention that the scores of downtowns it has helped revitalize.   House Republicans reportedly supported a watered down credit at the end of the year’s session but Senate leaders didn’t go along with it so the credit expires.

5) Lawmakers ended a requirement that all community colleges participate in the federal student loan program that makes low-interest loans available to students.

More than half of North Carolina students attending college or universities are enrolled in community colleges. Just a few years ago 57 percent of North Carolina community college students lacked access to low interest federal loans–the largest share of any state in the country at that time.

Thanks to the 2010 law that required community colleges to offer the loans, that percentage dropped to 36 percent past year, still too high but a vast improvement.  That requirement is gone, thanks to the General Assembly, and many students who need help while they are in school are now forced to turn to private loans with interest rates three or four times as high as the rate on the federal loans.

6) Lawmakers also abolished the state Earned Income Tax Credit that helped more than 900,000 low-wage workers in North Carolina, many of whom received little or no benefit from the tax cut passed last year.   The state EITC used to have bipartisan support in North Carolina. President Ronald Reagan called the federal EITC the best anti-poverty program that Congress ever created.  The Republican-controlled General Assembly does not seem to agree.

7) Pre-registration of 16 and 17 olds to vote. Most of the publicity about election law passed last year that is now before the courts has focused on the provision requiring a photo ID to vote beginning with the 2016 elections.

But the 57-page law includes a host of other provisions, including an end to pre-registration for 16 and 17 year olds that automatically added their names to the voter rolls when they turned 18. That program had strong bipartisan support when it was created several years ago as part of a consensus that young people should be encouraged to vote and participate in their democracy.

This General Assembly voted to abolish the program. Apparently it is no longer a good idea to encourage young people to show up at the polls.

There’s more of course, a shocking abortion law passed in 2011 that would force 12-year-old rape victims who become pregnant to view an ultra sound and listen to anti-choice propaganda before accessing abortion services—that part of the law was stayed by the courts—and another law that allows loaded and hidden handguns in bars, restaurants and city parks.

Remember all that when folks talk about the damaging education cuts the General Assembly and Governor Pat McCrory made or the health care coverage for 400,000 people state officials refused to provide.  Those were definitely massively misguided decisions but they were not the only ones—far from it.