The missing part of the buzz over state retirement system
House Minority Leader Larry Hall caused quite a stir at the Legislative Building this week by telling reporters that House and Senate budget negotiators were considering inserting a provision in the final budget agreement that would dramatically change the retirement system for teachers and state employees, shifting it from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution system.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore denied the issue was being discussed in the backroom budget talks, as did other powerful members of the Senate who have been part of the negotiations.
Berger did say that the changing the retirement system has been discussed in the legislative halls this session but not as part of the final budget.
Missing from the news stories was any mention of a provision that was part of the budget the Senate passed that would end retiree health benefits for teachers and state employees hired after January 1, 2016.
That would also be a dramatic change and was never debated in a committee or on the Senate floor. It was only discovered after the Senate had approved its spending plan.
And it has definitely been discussed in what Hall called the “secret society” that is now putting the budget together because it was part of the Senate budget and not included in the House plan. Negotiators have to decide if it will be part of the final agreement.
Hall rightly pointed out that making retirement benefits less generous would make it more difficult to recruit and retain state employees. Their salaries have long been below those available in the private sector but were competitive when it came to health care and retirement benefits.
Turning the state employee retirement plan to a defined contribution system would change that, as would the Senate’s plan to end health benefits for retirees. Both proposals deserve full and open debate and more attention from the folks covering the General Assembly.
McCrory’s odd take on recent history to support his bond
The size of a state infrastructure bond and the projects it would fund are also apparently still unresolved, despite word from House leaders that they had come to an agreement about a bond package with their Senate counterparts.
But when pressed by reporters, the two sides had different versions of the size of the bond package, with House leaders claiming it would be $2 billion and Senate leaders saying the agreement was for a $1.5 billion package.
Both sides admitted that they had not decided yet on what projects would be built. In other words, there is no actual agreement.
The bond package is a top priority of Governor Pat McCrory and while he’s right that a bond would help the state, his sales pitch for it includes an odd take on recent history.
McCrory said in Washington this week that when he took office he was shocked at the lack of attention to basic operations of the state and that there hadn’t been a major bond to shore up the infrastructure since 2000.
Implicit in McCrory’s remarks was that folks running North Carolina before he took office were to blame for neglecting to invest in state buildings and operations.
Part of that is true. The last bond package passed by the General Assembly was approved by the voters 15 years ago and included $3.1 billion worth of projects at university and community college campuses.
But just eight years after that came the Great Recession that dramatically reduced state revenues and forced policymakers to use every available dollar to keep the lights on and the schools open.
Then as the state began to recover, McCrory’s fellow Republicans took over the General Assembly and slashed the budget even further to pay for tax cuts, leaving no funding to reinvest in state operations.
They weren’t interested in building anything.
McCrory is right that North Carolina needs a major bond package now to shore up its infrastructure and to create jobs but he should hardly be surprised or shocked the state’s infrastructure is in disrepair.
That’s what happens when you have a massive recession followed by a takeover of the government by folks ideologically hostile to government in the first place. Not much chance of the needed reinvestment that point.
Confederate plates still being issued in North Carolina
And speaking of McCrory, it has now been 50 days since he said in the wake of the Charleston church shootings that North Carolina should stop issuing license plates that feature the confederate flag. But the state is still issuing them.
McCrory says the General Assembly must act to stop issuing the plates. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger says McCrory can do it himself by issuing an executive order. And while they conveniently blame each other, the state keeps issuing the plates and the two Republican politicians avoid antagonizing their far-right base.
The inaction comes as a new poll finds that a majority of South Carolina voters now support the decision by their Republican Governor Nicki Haley to remove the confederate flag from the state capitol grounds.
Public Policy Polling finds there has been a 31 percent shift in attitudes about the flag with only 33 percent now in favor of the flag still flying.
Haley went to the South Carolina legislature after the shooting and demanded that lawmakers approve legislation to take down the flag. And they listened.
McCrory, who received national attention for saying North Carolina should stop issuing license plates bearing the flag, has done nothing to make it happen.