Tackling N.C.’s prickliest problems

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What’s the biggest issue facing North Carolina today?

That was the question posed at a recent lunch with Leslie Boney, the newly named director of the Institute for Emerging Issues. Boney wants to ensure that future Emerging Issues Forums focus on our state’s most relevant issues.

Pocketbook issues typically take first place in statewide surveys, but current economic growth, moderate inflation, new job creations and pay increases in existing jobs might eliminate them among our top two or three issues. While the House Bill 2 patch didn’t totally resolve that controversy, it certainly took it off page one and removed enough of the concerns of businesses and sports promoters so it is no longer the months-long, top-of-mind topic.

One could insist that transportation, infrastructure improvement, discrimination, immigration and justice issues are highly important, but without question, the two most compelling issues facing North Carolina have to be education and health care, both so complicated as to almost not know how or where to begin resolving them.

We have previously said public education is the most important function of state and local government and, while there is much good taking place in public education today, there is unquestionably also concern. Too many preschool children are unprepared to begin the formal education process and too many fail to get the basic foundations of reading, English skills and math needed to succeed as they progress through grade levels. Reforms are necessary in providing the sound basic education mandated by our state constitution and needed by today’s workplace. Certainly there are differences of opinion in some education issues, but clearly partisan or proprietary interests need to be set aside to achieve better education outcomes.

Health care is also a many-faceted, complicated issue, made all the more uncertain by the current debates taking place in Washington. We have a public-private health system that neither promotes competition nor better health outcomes. Nobody is satisfied, most especially providers, insurers, drug companies or patients, the latter group seemingly with the least voice. A large segment has insurance provided by government, either through Medicaid, Medicare or government-provided health insurance for active and retired employees. Too many have no insurance.

Those with either private employer-provided insurance or who purchase individual policies face escalating insurance premiums, increasing deductibles and confusing language trying to ascertain what is and isn’t covered. Some providers estimate they could lower the costs of doctor and hospital visits by as much as 40 percent by eliminating the costs associated with processing insurance claims. We cannot continue to spend 18 percent of our gross domestic product on health care, but solutions we’ve heard to date seem to only nibble around the edges of the problems.

If education and health care are the top two issues, we suggest that leadership might rank third. Perhaps it is the romantic remembrance of times past, but it does not appear today’s leaders in business, government, nonprofits and the private sector are willing to delve into complicated issues, seek compromise and put the overall interests of our state above their own in finding solutions.

What would you say are the biggest issues facing North Carolina? In order to address them we must first identify, then rank them in order of importance. Your input is important and welcomed for a better North Carolina. Send them to tomcamp@carolinabroadcasting.com.

Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina state treasurer and is creator and host of “N.C. Spin,” a weekly statewide television discussion of state issues airing at 6:30 a.m. Sundays on WRAL-TV and 8:30 a.m. on WRAZ-TV Fox 50. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.