DOBSON — The state budget director met some tough questions from Surry County leaders following his presentation here Wednesday.
Andrew Heath, a 2013 appointee of Gov. Pat McCrory, painted a generally positive picture of North Carolina’s economy, citing numerous improvements over the past few years.
Those included a drop in unemployment from 9.4 to 4.7 percent, the creation of 300,000 jobs and a revenue surplus.
Heath said that growth proved wrong “the sky-is-falling narrative,” projected by media after aggressive tax cuts were made.
“The economy is doing well in all the broadest measures,” he said.
Noting that North Carolina’s $22.3 billion budget represents the ninth-largest economy in the nation and the 23rd in the world, Heath discussed how that money is spent.
Public education receives the largest slice of state funding at 57 percent, Heath said, with health and human services behind that at 23 percent, and 12 percent to public safety and justice.
The budget director also noted the recent teacher pay hike to $50,000 shot North Carolina from among the lowest in the nation to about 20th.
In the question and answer session following the presentation, Dr. Travis Reeves, Surry County Schools superintendent, pressed for more details regarding the administration’s commitment to public education.
“One of my concerns in rural North Carolina is it seems to be our state is a tale of two states – rural North Carolina and urban North Carolina,” Reeves said. “When will we get pre-recession level funding?”
Since 2008 budget cuts, the school systems have struggled to keep teachers and fill position, and that the “cost of doing business has increased, with retirement rates and health insurance increases,” Reeves said. “The dollars just don’t go as far.”
In responding, Heath noted that he couldn’t speak to data from prior to 2013.
“We’re not going to improve overnight,” he said, but calling recent actions “a relentless investment in education.”
Reeves told Heath, “We’re grateful the teachers’ pay has been addressed,” and requested that more revenue from the N.C. Education Lottery be redirected back toward education.
“It’s almost a misnomer,” Reeves said of the lottery.
This week’s presentation came about after representatives from Heath’s office had reached out to local officials, according to Surry County Commissioner Larry Phillips.
Phillips said he readily accepted, and the event was hosted in partnership with the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce and the Surry County Economic Development Partnership.
Various city and county officials attended along with members and staffers of those organizations, administrators from the city and county schools and Surry Community College.
“All of us are impacted in some way by state government,” Randy Collins, chamber president, stated during opening remarks.
“One of the biggest challenges is education on what the issues are and getting the facts.”
Phillips told the group the meeting with the budget director was about bridging the gap between “the world I would like to live in and the world I have to live in.”
In an interview after the presentation, Heath said he did not think it was likely that the revenue surplus would result in a reinstatement of the tax-free weekend.
He had noted earlier that a $473 million surplus would be invested in a “rainy day fund” to prepare for an “inevitable economic downturn” at some point. Additionally, he said, “there is a general rule toward simplifying the tax code.”
Heath also addressed the effects of HB2, the so-called bathroom bill.
“HB2 is an election year political issue more than having a true economic impact in the state,” he said, calling the effect of concert cancellations by artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam “negligible.”
PayPal and DeutcheBank halted expansion but “no jobs have actually left,” Heath said, explaining those moves cost the state about 650 jobs, compared to a 12,000 jobs added in the past month.
“It just isn’t statistically really registering on a state level,” he said.
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.