Since taking control of the General Assembly in 2011, the conservative powers that be in North Carolina have been waging a more or less constant war on all things public. Whether it’s the public schools, the University of North Carolina, environmental protection, the criminal justice and corrections systems, the social safety net or a dozen other essential structures and systems, there has been an unrelenting drive to cut spending, reduce the number of employees and privatize services.
In the far right, market fundamentalist view of reality, such an approach is precisely what is needed to incentivize all kinds of new “efficiencies.” You know how this goes: If we just spur state programs and employees to “compete for customers” and bring “market forces to bear,” we can “run government like a business.”
Unfortunately, in the real world in which most North Carolinians live, the reality is a little less theoretical and a lot more practical. It goes like this: When you reduce investments in core services and structures, your core services and structures suffer.
Nowhere is this debate and the impact of conservative policies better exemplified than in the way we compensate state government employees. It’s been well-documented of late how far North Carolina teachers have fallen in recent years (even though they’ve actually received slightly more favorable treatment than other employees on occasion). But for years now, most North Carolina state employees have been treated by state leaders as if they were expendable cogs in a Donald Trump casino.
While a few select positions have enjoyed big salaries and healthy raises – Gov. McCrory made quite a fuss at the outset of his administration over the need to significantly raise the already six-figure salaries of several new cabinet appointees and, of course, beginning teachers have received significant, but not massive, raises in recent years – salaries for most rank and file state employees remain extremely modest and stagnant.
In the last decade and a half, most state employees have seen only two years of decent pay hikes – 2006 and 2007, when lawmakers granted raises of 5.5% and 4% respectively. Other than those two years, raises have been non-existent or tiny. It’s gotten so bad that a page on the website of the State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC) actually brags about the 2014 annual raise of $1,000 (less than $20 per week before taxes) as a major accomplishment!
And, of course, it was just yesterday that legislative leaders pushed the repeat button by confirming that most state employees would receive only a flat, one-time bonus of $750 for the new fiscal year. That’s $14.42 per week before taxes or about $2.88 per day. Next year, employees will be back where they were last year when and if the issue is revisited. State government retirees will get no increase at all.
It doesn’t take a math degree to understand that such treatment is pushing state workers further and further behind the eight ball. Since 2001, general U.S. inflation has been around 35%. And, of course, many other expenses have risen even faster. And while U.S. workers have, overall, experienced only flat wage growth for years, at least it’s been flat. State employee compensation in North Carolina, on the other hand, has risen roughly half the inflation rate since the start of the century.
The implications of such compensation policies are not hard to grasp. Talk as state leaders might of valuing employees and their contributions, the message to workers is clear: If you’re thinking about making state government a career, think again.
Meanwhile, the message to all other North Carolinians is equally clear: state government services are something to be delivered, Wal-Mart like, on the cheap.
Whereas public employment was once seen as an honorable career – a path to obtain middle class security while serving one’s community – it is now something that’s increasingly seen as a temporary interlude and place for young people and political appointees (the McCrory administration greatly increased the number of employees considered as such) to land for a while on their way to the private sector.
Sadly, the proponents of this approach seem blind to the impact of such policies. The WFMY story quoted state human resources officials as reporting that the state’s “turnover costs” run as much as $300 million every year in the form of recruiting and training costs and mistakes of new workers. Add to this the costly damage to morale and the waste associated with hundreds, if not thousands, of workers spending vast amounts of time currying political favor with appointed supervisors (increasingly the best route to job security) and the picture grows even more sobering.
How things ever got this bad is a complex story. The combination of the Great Recession, the 2010 election and the incessant push of conservative ideologues to fulfill right-wing icon Grover Norquist’s revolting vision of “shrinking government down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub” have all played big roles.
Conservative leaders commenced their time in power a few years back by attacking the North Carolina Association of Educators and have done their worst ever since to bludgeon the group into submission. Add to this the generally pathetic performance of SEANC throughout the corrupt tenure of disgraced ex-leader Dana Cope and his team (a group that sidled up to the conservative Gang of Five that briefly took over the Wake County School Board and, at one point, made Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger its “legislator of the year”) and the steady descent of state employees in North Carolina is perhaps not surprising.
When a turnaround might be expected is hard to forecast. The recent election of a Cope ally does not bode well for any hope that SEANC will soon rise to the occasion. Meanwhile, conservative groups in the Art Pope empire continue to spew venom on a daily basis against government itself – even, ironically, as a growing number of their alumni fill more and more state jobs.
And yet, all is far from lost. Despite all the damage that has been inflicted, conservative leaders still shy away from most direct attacks on state workers. During yesterday’s budget agreement press conference, Berger and Speaker Tim Moore still paid lip service to the idea that state employees are deserving of respect and decent wages. Governor McCrory frequently plays the same game.
At some point, it seems likely that state employees and teachers will figure out a way to build on this, make league with average North Carolinians and give voice to a positive vision of government – one in which all citizens are stakeholders and employees are honored public servants.
Let’s hope it happens sooner rather than later.
Rob Schofield is the Director of Research and Policy Development at N.C. Policy Watch.