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Big issues ahead as our lawmakers return to Raleigh

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The new session of the General Assembly that convenes at noon Wednesday may hold some interesting political twists and turns. Things have changed a bit, in an important way.

As it’s been throughout this decade, Republicans are in charge. But unlike the past few sessions, they no longer hold a “supermajority,” with the votes to override any gubernatorial veto and the power to do anything they wish.

Voters, fed up with the excesses of one-party rule, turned out in record numbers for last November’s midterm elections and chose more Democratic members of the House and Senate than they have since Republicans won both legislative branches in the 2010 election. Republicans’ grip has loosened and they need Democratic support to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes.

In theory, this should lead to a more cooperative, deliberative and maybe even open legislative session. We hope that’s true. So, we believe, do the voters, who are making it clear that they’re fed up with Raleigh’s secret circus, where legislation appears and is passed in the dark of night and we’re all stuck with the results.

As always, there are big issues to be dealt with, foremost among them a budget for the next two years. And within that budget lie important questions, foremost how we’ll pay our teachers and support our public education system. While we’ve seen gradual improvements in education funding, especially in the last session, our school funding still ranks in the bottom quarter of the country and our teachers’ pay is nowhere near the national median it hit before the Great Recession.

Thousands of teacher assistants have been furloughed and teachers still have to dig into their own pockets for supplies. There’s a pressing need for more school nurses, guidance counselors, psychologists and school resource officers. We need more big strides forward in school funding.

The state also has more work to do in disaster assistance and preparedness. Two hurricanes in two years, spreading devastating flooding over half the state, have delivered a blunt message: We aren’t ready for the ravages of a changing climate.

That, and the coastal issues associated with rising sea levels, need attention. In addition to fixing what Matthew and Florence destroyed, we need to prevent that kind of damage every time we’re hit. That means a long-term, comprehensive readiness program that emphasizes stormproofing homes, businesses, utilities and other infrastructure.

We can’t have our sewer plants overflowing in every big storm. We need to clear buildings out of the most flood-prone zones and elevate others. Highways and bridges need strengthening and some need to be elevated. We can do that work now, or we can spend billions every time a new storm hits. The choice should be obvious.

We need further efforts against the pollution that has poisoned the drinking water of many households throughout the Cape Fear basin, and we’re talking about much more than GenX. The 1,4 dioxane coming down the river from the Triad is just as dangerous and the state has done even less to protect residents from it. That and the longstanding response of our lawmakers — a clueless shrug — needs to change too.

Economic development issues need to be addressed, especially in this corner of the state, which is lagging behind the prosperity enjoyed by residents of the Triangle, Charlotte and the Triad, among others.

Rural economic development needs more than empty words and promises. It needs real action. And so does Medicaid expansion. Enough excuses. North Carolina’s working poor need help and expanding Medicaid will provide it, at minimal cost.

We hope lawmakers deal effectively and cooperatively with these and the many other issues they will encounter in the next two years. The voters are counting on it, and they’ve still got accountability on their mind.

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