Raleigh, N.C. — Top Democratic lawmakers said Tuesday that Republican legislative leaders need to step up during the session that starts Wednesday and work hard to address the issues of low teacher pay and leaky coal ash ponds.
Teacher pay and coal ash are crises that affect the future of the state, House Minority Leader Larry Hall and Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue said during a news conference.
Hall, whose wife was a teacher and whose daughter had to leave the profession to make a better living, called Gov. Pat McCrory's plan for an average 2 percent increase for teachers "pitiful" and "paltry," saying it doesn't make up for cuts to education spending in recent years.
"We're facing a teacher pay crisis for sure, and more teachers are going to leave if we don't do better," said Hall, D-Durham. "This is an emergency. We need significant pay raises now for our teachers."
Blue, D-Wake, said McCrory and legislative leaders need to have a plan in place before the General Assembly adjourns this summer to raise North Carolina's teacher pay to the national average within four years. The state now ranks 46th nationwide, with an average annual salary of $45,737.
"Don't think these states all around us are standing still," Blue said, pointing to a map that showed the average teacher salaries in Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina. "The gap still persists, or it widens."
That pay gap will preclude promising teachers from working in North Carolina classrooms and will discourage veteran educators from remaining in the profession, he said.
Hall said low pay creates a churn in the classroom, and North Carolina cannot build a corps of experienced teachers to train the state's next generations of leaders and workers.
The Democrats said they aren't calling for higher taxes or increased spending to pay for the teacher raises. It's a matter of making it a priority when lawmakers adjust the budget for the coming year.
"The same energy and effort that went into those priorities," Hall said, listing tax cuts that the GOP-led legislature passed last year, "needs to now be focused on teachers and education."
"All of us agree it's a crisis, so we ought to be able to come together and fix it," Blue said.
Lagging tax collections have put the state budget in a $400 million hole, and Hall said Republicans need to own the deficit because their tax-cutting moves last year helped create it.
"They set the fire, but now they tell us there's no water to put it out," he said.
Regarding coal ash, Hall said Duke Energy should be responsible for paying for cleaning up all of its ash ponds across the state, not just the one that spilled tons of the toxic sludge into the Dan River three months ago.
"It's part of the cost of them doing business," he said. "They took those unreasonable risks regarding creating that coal ash and not taking care of it responsibly, and they gambled with our clean water and our environment."
Lawmakers should dictate the terms of the cleanup, he said, and not rely on the "bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo" of allowing the state Utilities Commission decide how much of the cleanup cost Duke can pass on to consumers.
"If Republicans are going to be in charge, they should recognize an emergency when they see it and take care of it," he said.
The ash ponds point to a larger issue of adequate environmental regulations in the state, Blue said.
"Given the push over the last couple of years, (the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources) is short-handed to handle some of these crises. Part of the solution, in this session as we come up with answers to the coal ash crisis, is to re-examine what the regulatory authority ought to look like and how many people ought to be doing it."
McCrory spokesman Ryan Tronovitch noted that both lawmakers voted for legislation several years ago that exempted ash ponds from tougher environmental oversight.
“Gov. McCrory is seeking solutions instead of playing political games," Tronovitch said in an email. "We’re glad (Blue and Hall) are reconsidering those positions and look forward to working together to solve a complex problem that is more than 60 years old.”