House Democrats held a press conference today to talk about their agenda for the 2012 session. It lists four main focus areas – creating jobs, protecting education, helping the most vulnerable citizens, and protecting rights.
Achieving their priorities will be difficult. Republicans hold a 68-52 majority in the House. Even blocking veto overrides could be tougher this year. Four of the five Democrats who broke with their caucus and voted with the GOP last year aren’t coming back next session, so Democrats could find themselves with less leverage.
House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, D-Orange, says the caucus may not be 100% together on every vote, but he believes they’ll stand united on the agenda items. "It is clear to us that under the almost 18 months of Republican legislative authority that North Carolina is in fact moving backward,” he said.
Hackney blamed public sector layoffs, particularly in education, for the fact that the state’s economy is recovering more slowly than the national economy. He also blasted Republicans for cuts to higher education, which he says is directly linked to jobs.
“Tuition increased 10% in one year,” Hackney said, “while financial aid was cut by $35 million. As a result, 9500 fewer students received aid, and those that did got 10% less.”
Hackney also attacked the GOP for cuts to pre-kindergarten programs he credited for the state’s falling drop-out rate. The 2011 budget cut about four thousand pre-K seats.
“These 4000 kids will never get another chance to be four years old,” he said. “They will go into kindergarten behind their peers.”
House Democrats are calling on Republicans to find additional revenue to restore some of the cuts made to education last year. They’re also pledging to protect voting rights, the environment, tax relief for low-income families, and funding for women’s health programs.
"This agenda gives you a list of priorities that really reflect the concrete things that were done to take our state backward," said Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake.
House Republican leaders have said they will try to find more revenue to ease the cuts to schools next fiscal year, but it's not clear where they'll get it. Meantime, Republican Senate pro tem Phil Berger has advanced a package of educational reforms he says will improve schools without spending a lot more money.
Hackney said Democrats might support some of Berger's ideas, but said reform alone won’t be enough to repair funding levels he called “inadequate.”
“We provided a better level of education,” Hackney said of the Democrats. “The teachers were there. Now they’re not. Teaching assistants were there. Now they're not. That's a fact.”