Gov. Beverly Perdue laid out a proposal last week to increase the state’s sales tax by three-quarters of a cent to fund education.
The move would generate an estimated $850 million for the state’s public schools, community colleges and universities — money Perdue says is necessary to make up for the Draconian cuts to education at the hands of Republican legislators.
“We owe it to our children and our state to stop these cuts and make education a priority again — a fraction of a penny for progress,” Perdue said in a conference call with news reporters last week.
North Carolina is now 49th in the nation in per-pupil funding for education. Perdue said she was dismayed by what she considers the sell-out of the state’s long-standing reputation as a leader in education in the South.
“When I see a list with North Carolina in per pupil funding worse than Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas — all these states that for generations had tried to be more like North Carolina — I feel like there is something really dangerous happening to North Carolina,” Perdue said. “It is shameful. It is wrong.”
But, the sales tax has no hope of passing muster with the Republican-controlled General Assembly, according to Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin.
Republicans are chalking Perdue’s proposal up to campaign posturing in her re-election bid this year.
“It is not going to go anywhere in the House or Senate,” Davis said.
Davis said an economic recovery is the best bet for boosting state coffers, and a tax increase would run counter to a recovery.
“We believe the economy is still very fragile and that money is best left in the hands of the private sector in the hopes that it will generate jobs and consequently increase revenue under the present tax structure,” Davis said.
But, Perdue is pitching the tax hike as an investment in children.
“I have never met a parent or a grandparent that actually didn’t want a better life for their child or grandchild than they’ve had themselves,” Perdue said.
The argument frames Republican lawmakers as putting the interests of children second.
“Of course she wants to make us out like bad guys so she can win the election,” Davis said.
But, Davis said Republicans’ stance against a tax increase is equally looking out for the interests of children.
“I don’t want anyone’s grandchildren or my grandchildren to inherit this legacy of debt,” Davis said.
He also questioned whether more money is always the answer.
“We believe the educational system has problems that money won’t fix,” Davis said.
Perdue will likely find allies in the ranks of public schools and universities. Bill Nolte, the assistant superintendent for Haywood County Schools, said education is hurting and could use any help it can get.
“If the governor or any other elected official can stop the bleeding, good for them,” Nolte said.
The Haywood County School system has lost $8 million and more than 120 positions during the past three years, Nolte said.
The result is larger class sizes and fewer teacher assistants. Teachers also have less help dealing with at-risk students, with students who can’t speak English and with special needs students — which takes time away from teaching the rest of the class.
Schools can brace for more cuts this coming year when a stream of federal stimulus money that until now had softened states’ budget crises is phased out.
Nolte admitted that the Republican leaders are keeping the promise they made to voters when they swept to power — namely that they would let a 1-cent sales tax initially billed as a temporary recession measure finally sunset and make up the difference with cuts.
“That is exactly what they did,” Nolte said. “They cut taxes that were being used for education and other essential services. I don’t think anyone can say they were surprised.”
Political instant replay
The debate over a sales tax increase for education is largely a replay of last year’s budget showdown between the Republican-controlled General Assembly and the Democratic governor. Republicans say Perdue has no chance of changing the outcome this go around and that her sales tax pitch for education is already dead in the water.
Last year, the governor vetoed the state budget crafted by Republicans. She wanted a sales tax increase to offset cuts to education. Both the House and Senate had enough votes to override the governor’s veto, however.
The Senate had a veto-proof majority of 31 Republicans compared to 19 Democrats. In the House, five Democrats joined with Republicans to override the governor’s veto.
To have any hope of success this time around, the governor would have to swing two Republicans in the Senate to her side and keep the five Democrats in the House from breaking ranks.
Even then, a bill to increase the sales tax by three-quarters of a cent could be far-fetched. It would require bringing a vote to the floor of the General Assembly — and since Republicans control the agenda they won’t even let it come to a vote, Davis said.
Perdue vowed to take her message on the road and hopefully raise enough Cain that voters will demand action.
“I am going to go in every legislators’ backyard to get this funding passed,” Perdue said. “I hope the people of the state think about this.”