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Election Week Memo: Education and the Environment Won the 2014 Election

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To: Interested Parties

From: Real Facts NC

Date: October 30, 2014

Re: Education and the Environment Won the 2014 Election


No matter which candidates win on Nov. 4—from county commissioner to U.S. Senate—it is clear public education and the environment dominated this election.

Most notable were incumbent legislators’ wholesale retreat from their divisive and unpopular 2013 agenda of cutting public school funding, freezing teacher pay, and rolling back environmental protections.  Sensing their vulnerability with voters, from Speaker Tillis to local county commissioners, incumbents across North Carolina claimed to be “investing in public schools” and “tough on Duke Energy.”  In fact, conservative legislators so thoroughly adopted traditional progressive messaging, it was often difficult to discern who was who.

The fact is advocates for public education and the environment tapped into voters’ anger and forced a change in the debate. At least from a campaign rhetoric standpoint, education and the environment will have won the 2014 election. The central question going forward is: /will North Carolina’s governing majority’s newfound affinity for teachers and clean water last past this election? One thing is clear, the promises candidates made this year will be hard to keep in 2015 with a projected budget shortfall of $1 billion.

Education

The conversion on education and teacher pay has been a year in the making.

  • Polling at the end of 2013 showed that underfunding of education, especially North Carolina’s abysmal teacher pay ranking, was highly unpopular with voters.
  • Former Gov. Jim Hunt set a benchmark by issuing a challenge to raise teacher pay to the national average in a New Year’s op-ed.
  • Soon education advocacy groups, like Aim Higher, were rallying support for a teacher pay increase around the state.
  • In February, Gov. McCrory called an unusual press conference flanked by Speaker Tillis and President Pro Tem Berger to promise teacher pay raises.
  • Throughout the spring and summer, Republican legislators argued amongst themselves over differing teacher pay plans, elevating the issue to the top priority during the 2014 short session.
  • But despite the various plans and hampered by the reality of their tax cuts on state revenues, lawmakers were unable to come up with a plan that would raise teacher pay to the national average. Instead, they came up with a plan that gave raises to young teachers and almost nothing to veteran teachers, while paying for it by cutting school budgets for teacher assistants and continuing to underfund textbooks and classroom supplies.

Falling short of voter expectations on teacher pay and carrying the burden of $500 million in cuts to education including textbooks, teacher assistants and class sizes during 2013, education was an albatross for North Carolina Republicans in an off-year election that should have been favorable to conservatives.

The Kay Hagan campaign, and her allies, used education to hammer Speaker Tillis for months during the summer and early fall. In particular, Hagan supporters compared education cuts to the massive tax giveaways Tillis and his fellow Republicans gave to the wealthy and corporations. The contrasting priorities were obvious and unappealing to voters.

Legislative campaigns similarly used education cuts contrasted with tax cuts to effectively take on incumbents and forcing conservatives in swing districts to adopt traditionally progressive messages in an attempt to survive.

See these three examples of Wake County Republican incumbents Chad Barefoot and Tom Murryboasting about increasing teacher pay and spending money in public school classrooms and Tea Party activist Mattie Lawson attacking Democratic State Rep. Paul Tine for being anti-teacher.

Environment

It’s been several years since the environment has played a significant role during campaign season in North Carolina, but environmental advocates’ campaigns against fracking, coal ash and mega landfills throughout 2014 laid the groundwork for those issues to become key campaign issues in the fall. The response to the Dan River spill, in particular, sent lawmakers scrambling to come up with a coal ash “solution” before November.

Using TV issue ads during the first half of 2014, environmental advocates opened several effective lines of attack for the 2014 campaign:

  • Lawmakers fast-tracked fracking;
  • Lawmakers made disclosing fracking chemicals a crime;
  • Lawmakers eased restrictions on coal ash dumps;
  • Lawmakers allowed Duke Energy to charge ratepayers with the cost of cleaning up ash dumps;
  • Lawmakers eased restrictions on mega landfills.

In the last days of the 2014 session, the Republican majority made sure to come to a compromise on a coal ash bill. They claimed their legislation was “tough on Duke Energy” and forced Duke to pick up the tab for cleaning up the Dan River. But that’s a dodge. The real issue is who will pay to clean up all of the existing coal ash sites and sitting Republican legislators came down on Duke’s side, allowing the utility to pass off costs to ratepayers.

2015 and Beyond

2015 and 2016 will be an even bigger challenge for Gov. McCrory and his legislative allies. A perfect storm of their own making—tax cuts, slow economic growth and a structural budget deficit—will make it much harder for them to follow through on their promises to increase teacher pay and invest in our classrooms. A budget shortfall of $1 billion or more has been projected and some right-wing lawmakers are already calling for even more tax cuts.

Starting on January 15, 2015, Duke Energy will be allowed to ask the State Utilities Commission for an electricity rate increase to pay for coal ash cleanup. The decision from the commission with a pro-utility reputation may just be a formality. If that’s the case, lawmakers and former Duke employee, Pat McCrory, stand to catch more heat.

Regardless of the outcome of this week’s election, the work done in 2014 has set the stage for 2016 to be an even more favorable year for those of us opposed to the current leadership in Raleigh.