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Wednesday, 09 January 2013 00:00

Our state's priorities have gone askew

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op frThe swearing in of new Gov. Pat McCrory this past weekend brought to mind a conversation at a recent holiday party. I was sequestered with a few political types and several issues came up that had been covered in The Smoky Mountain News and other media outlets. Several of these discussion points are going to fall into the lap of the new governor and the General Assembly.

The new state legislative will start later this month in Raleigh, and there is no better time to point out that politics, at its most basic level, is about making moral decisions. You can choose the medicine you prefer — Democratic or Republican ideology, perhaps Libertarian — but the decisions make a real difference in the lives of citizens. For now, the GOP is in complete control in North Carolina, but I hope that Gov. McCrory’s past work in Charlotte will translate into a governor who represents all of North Carolina, not just one party’s ideology.

With that, back to the party:

“I read the story in your paper about the tuition tax hike at Western Carolina. Boy, that’s bad timing, and one of the trustees said it was the eighth straight year of hikes.”

And that’s just what happened. WCU trustees last month hiked undergraduate tuition by $340 for the 2013-2014 academic year. Not a huge hike, but the increase is part of a five-year plan to ease in a tuition hike of $1,360, which does not account for price increases in fees, housing and meals.

If you don’t think this is meaningful, guess again.

At the same time tuitions continues to rise, a national report tells us that two-thirds of American college graduates left school last year with massive student loan debt hanging over their heads, and the average amount they owed was $26,600. That’s up 5 percent from the previous year. The report was by the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS).

I wondered how students in our region were faring, how much debt they were taking on, so I contacted the folks at Western Carolina University. The debt load is slightly less, but it still seems a heavy burden to bear. The average debt for Western Carolina University graduates in 2011-12 (the most recent year for which data is available) was $17,714. By way of comparison, the average amount of debt for all North Carolina college graduates in 2011 was $20,800 in loans, according to the Project on Student Debt.

I’m a firm believer that a university education is the best way to steer young people toward a life where they can become assets to society rather than falling back on government-funded social programs for support. Let’s hope the new General Assembly works to keep tuition costs down.

“That was a great story about Richard Reeves and the church helping people heat their homes. That’s a sad situation.”

This issue, perhaps, speaks most clearly to the challenges facing North Carolina and the entire country. Funding from the federal government and disbursed at the local level provides heating assistance to the poor, and the amount available in North Carolina has dropped over the last few years from $116 million to $47 million. In Haywood County — where Reeves and other volunteers have delivered more than 1,400 loads of wood during the last seven years — funding fell from $1 million to $350,000.

Ever been cold in a house, trying to stave off frigid air? It’s an all-consuming task, and to do it night after night is something people living in this country should not have to face.

It is a subject that is often forgotten as we immerse ourselves in the politics of budgets, but this state’s poverty rate is continuing to climb at an alarming rate. According to the Raleigh News and Observer, we had the 26th-highest poverty rate in the country, 12.2 percent, in 1990. The rate now stands at 17.4 percent, which ranks us 12th in the nation.

“I would think that no matter what your political party is, this would be a matter of potent concern for the next governor,” Gene Nichol, director of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, told the Raleigh newspaper. “I would think that Republicans would have different ways of dealing with it, hoping to push back against it. But I can’t imagine being governor of the state of North Carolina and thinking that this is not a crucial concern. We have hundreds of thousands of children living in poverty, and it’s getting worse.’’

I can hear the naysayers now: we are in an economic crisis. Indeed, but we can’t completely forget the poor.

“So there’s that, and on top of it the Haywood Schools associate superintendent saying they have cut 129 full-time positions during the last seven years because of funding cuts.”

That’s according to Bill Nolte, the associate superintendent of Haywood County Schools, who says the budget reduction during that time was about $5 million. No doubt as these cuts sink in, early childhood education and other necessary remediation programs will suffer. That means more of those at-risk kids won’t make it to college or may not even graduate from high school, which means they are more likely to fall into that rising pool of citizens who are living in poverty.

I left that party depressed. Shrinking investments in our public schools, shrinking investment in our much-lauded university system, and an ever-increasing number of our citizens living in poverty, going without heat. These are real problems that affect our neighbors, and taken together, they paint a picture of a dire future for North Carolina. Our leaders in Raleigh have their work cut out for them.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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