RALEIGH — Gov. Pat McCrory unveiled highlights of his second-year agenda Tuesday, keeping to themes of improving North Carolina’s economic climate, supporting public school teachers and making state government more efficient.
Holding a news conference with his Cabinet-level staff, the Republican governor also vowed to get a teacher pay package through the General Assembly when it reconvenes in May. McCrory and fellow GOP legislative leaders have been criticized for approving no raise this school year, meaning there’s been only one annual increase since 2008, sending average pay toward the bottom of the states.
“That is unacceptable to me, unacceptable to the legislature and unacceptable to the people of North Carolina,” McCrory told reporters at the Executive Mansion. “And that’s why we will get teacher raises done this year.”
He didn’t commit to a certain pay increase, but said he wanted to unveil a plan getting finalized by his education adviser soon and have the backing of legislative leaders, who also have signaled teacher compensation as a top priority during its short budget-adjustment session.
McCrory wants the plan to emphasize front-loading pay for new teachers and rewarding those who teach math and science or perform well, presumably by calculated standards.
“We can’t just put a Band-Aid on teacher pay,” the governor said, adding, “we need to think strategically and long-term.”
McCrory enters 2014 after checking off many items in his first-year agenda thanks in part to Republicans in charge of the House and Senate.
The governor Tuesday characterized unemployment benefits and budget reductions during 2013 as tough decisions to restore the state’s fiscal health, while cutting income tax rates as a competitive jolt to bordering states. Democrats panned most of McCrory’s 2013 agenda as damaging the public schools and benefiting the well-to-do.
Buoyed by recent statistics showing a decline in the state unemployment rate, the governor reinforced efforts dating back to his first gubernatorial campaign in 2008 to get North Carolina into the energy exploration business and leverage transportation infrastructure into job creation.
While the path remains clear for state regulators to issue the first permits for fracking exploration as of March 2015, McCrory said he will press President Barack Obama’s administration to ease rules that prevent seismic testing off the Atlantic coast to measure potential natural gas and oil deposits. State environment Secretary John Skvarla said the administration also will keep working toward an “all of the above” policy to promote other energy forms.
Along with potential energy and education legislation, the governor said he expects a Medicaid reform bill to top his legislative agenda. But McCrory may have to accept less on Medicaid from lawmakers and medical providers cool to earlier ideas from Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos to turn Medicaid services over to managed-care organizations.
Medicaid reform, McCrory said, “may be the toughest battle.”
His administration is also reviewing whether some agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services are too large and unwieldy. The department, which is projected to spend more than $18 billion in federal and state funds this year, covers a wide range of activities, from pre-kindergarten and Medicaid and adult care homes to public health emergencies. DHHS also has been marked by repeated shortfalls and mistakes dating before McCrory’s arrival in Raleigh.
“It’s an amazing hodgepodge of responsibilities that I think makes management extremely difficult,” McCrory said. State Budget Director Art Pope is leading the government efficiency initiative reviewing DHHS and other agencies.
While Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, praised McCrory’s agenda for this year, Democratic leaders later Tuesday were skeptical about McCrory’s agenda — not surprising given they saw little good coming from the governor in 2013.
“Teachers, students, and working families have seen Gov. McCrory’s true priorities, and until we see a meaningful plan that supports education and grows the middle class, the governor’s words will remain hollow,” Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, said in a prepared statement.
McCrory said he wanted more dialogue with political opponents — as long as they offer solutions for fixing complex problems. “One area that we all need to improve on is dialogue and conversation, and not political sound bites against each other,” he said.
But cooperation is unlikely given it’s an election year. Last year also was marked by weekly protests by critics of the Republican agenda and more than 900 arrests at the Legislative Building. Laws written by Republicans on elections and public schools are being challenged in court.