Perhaps Mr. Owen has amnesia, but let’s go back to 2010 when the Democrats last controlled the legislative and executive branches. Teacher pay was frozen, teachers had been furloughed without pay, local school districts were forced to revert hundreds of millions of dollars back to the state, and our state faced a $2.5 billion structural deficit. N.C. ranked in the top five states for unemployment, had the top tax rates of any Southeastern state, and average teacher pay was one of the lowest in the nation. In the 2010 election, voters recognized that the status quo was unacceptable and elected the first Republican majority of both chambers of the General Assembly in over 140 years.
Overriding Democratic Gov. Perdue’s veto, Republicans balanced the budget. Temporary tax hikes were allowed to expire as promised; state education spending increased. No teachers were furloughed and state employees, including teachers, received their first pay raise in five years in 2012. Starting teacher pay now ranks second in the Southeast.
Mr. Owen mentions that some teachers received only a 0.3 percent pay increase, but fails to mention the average pay raise for all teachers was 7 percent. State funding of K-12 ranks around No. 8 in the nation, and funding for community colleges and UNC system continue to rank near the top in the nation. For the first time since 2007, our unemployment rate is below the national average.
During this past election, our state was bombarded by political advertisements from billionaire Soros and other Democrats claiming that Republicans cut education spending. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even the liberal Washington Post identified this claim as false and awarded the claim “Two Pinocchios.”
The only political party in Raleigh that actually cut overall education funding was the Democrats from 2008-10. They cut state funding for our schools and replaced those state dollars with temporary funding from the federal stimulus program. Democrats cut textbook funding from over $100 million to $2.5 million. Mr. Owen acknowledges these cuts were made, he just doesn’t tell you Democrats did the cutting.
Republicans realize the key to investing in education is helping put people back to work. Over 300,000 new jobs have been created by businesses in our state since the Republicans took the majority in January 2011. Buncombe County’s unemployment rate declined from around 10 percent to about 4 percent today. When businesses create jobs, tax revenues are generated and reinvested in education. State funding for K-12 has increased from $7.5 to $8.1 billion since 2012. State funding for community colleges is around $1 billion annually and $2.6 billion for the UNC system. All education spending is almost $12 billion, comprising around 60 percent of our budget. The Republican majority recently funded a new engineering school at WCU’s Biltmore Park campus. Community colleges received an extra $15 million. A-B Tech and Blue Ridge Community College have an additional $1 million for training workers at companies like GE Aviation, Borg Warner, Linamar, and Continental Teves.
Finally, Mr. Owen claims election results in Buncombe County validate his contention that Republicans haven’t supported education with the election of Reps. Ager and Turner. He ignores the fact that Democrats and their allies outspent Republicans in the 2014 legislative elections by unprecedented margins. Even so, Republicans actually gained one seat in the Senate and only lost two seats in the House — those held by Reps. Moffitt and Ramsey who were outspent by 5:1. Reps. Ager and Turner obviously benefited from around $2.5 million in spending each on their behalf.
Considering the fact that both of these districts are the most evenly matched in the state where both political parties have an equal opportunity to win each seat based on historic voting patterns, it is surprising that despite an overwhelming financial advantage, Rep. Ager won by only less than 500 votes, and Turner won by just 1,000 votes.
The people of our state deserve our best efforts to help them without rehashing discredited campaign talking points. We all agree that there is more work to do. I look forward to working with all members, regardless of their political affiliation, to make our great state better.
Henry D. Mitchell is chairman, Buncombe County GOP.