Republican legislative leaders took the unusual step today of calling on Governor Bev Perdue to publicly debate them on the issue of education funding.
Last week, Perdue proposed raising the state sales tax three-quarters of a cent to provide more money for education. Since then, she's been hammering the Republicans on education, calling out Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis by name.
"The cuts that the Republican leadership made to the education budget last year in the General Assembly are unnecessary and extreme," Perdue said last week. "They've done serious damage to the core of North Carolina's educational backbone."
Running on a tax increase isn’t exactly standard operating procedure, especially during a recession. But a poll last summer by Democrat-affiliated Public Policy Polling showed that 50% of NC voters favored keeping a temporary one-cent sales tax if it would minimize cuts to education, while only 36% percent backed GOP leaders who said letting the tax expire was the most important thing.
Senate Leader Phil Berger today defended letting the tax expire. “We all know that higher taxes kill jobs, harm the economy,” Berger said at a hastily-called press conference, saying that voters had delivered their verdict in the 2010 elections that put Republicans in charge of the General Assembly for the first time in more than a century.
Berger says Perdue’s been waging “a one-sided debate.” He challenged Perdue to argue the issue face-to-face.
"Let's have a joint appearance - a debate. And let's talk about this. Let’s give the people of North Carolina the opportunity to hear you articulate your rationale for why increasing taxes is the right thing to do at this time,” Berger said. “And I will be in a position to articulate the position that the legislature has taken, that that’s not the right thing to do.”
Berger says Democrats often argue that the solution to problems in education is to put more money into education. “We think the answer lies somewhere else,” he said. “More money is not always the answer - the right answer.”
Asked how much of this is about election-year politics, Berger said he’d been told by consultants that “The governor’s path to re-election is most likely going to be successful if she can pick a fight with the legislature. In my opinion, I think what you’re seeing, particularly over the last week or so, is her picking that fight. “
Dems: Debate invite "theatrics"
Perdue spokeswoman Christine Mackey said via email that it isn’t the governor who’s picking an election year fight – it’s Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis, who added a “me-too” debate invitation to the governor shortly after Berger’s news conference.
“Republican leaders in the General Assembly need to stop wasting time with cheap stunts meant to distract attention from the damage they’ve done to North Carolina’s schools. They should stand up and take responsibility for passing a budget that eliminated more than 1,700 teacher positions and nearly 2,300 teacher assistant positions this year," Mackey said.
"Rather than playing useless political games, they should get to work and find a way to reverse the damage they’ve caused, and to prevent the even deeper cuts that are coming next year. North Carolina’s school children don’t need petty campaign theatrics; they need leaders who will make education a priority,” she concluded.
You can usually expect an election-year donnybrook to clear the benches, and today’s challenge was no exception.
Americans for Prosperity was quick to volunteer to host a debate and to cover its cost.
“This is an important issue that is very important to taxpayers and we agree that the issue needs full debate,” said AFP NC Director Dallas Woodhouse in a statement. “Americans for Prosperity is willing to host the debate at a location that both sides agree to utilize. We will offer to shoulder the costs of the event as a public service to the citizens of North Carolina.”
And even though neither side today mentioned candidate-at-large and potential Perdue primary challenger Bill Faison, he weighed in, too: "President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis are calling for a debate on tax policy and funding for education. Where have they been for these past five months?"
"I asked them in writing to put my JOBS Plan on for debate at three of their special sessions, September, November and January,” Faison said in a statement. “I have asked them to stop wasting North Carolinian’s hard earned tax dollars on social issues and bring forward my plan, and that of so many of my colleagues in the House, to put people back to work, support education and put uniforms on State Highway Patrol Troopers using by using a fraction of a penny sales tax. Both Berger and Tillis have stubbornly ignored all calls for meaningful Legislative action to deal with these problems. They have refused to allow public Legislative debate on these vital issues.”