Over the past year the legislature continued to build upon the great work they began in 2011, when Republicans gained control of the General Assembly for the first time in 140 years. The highlights include increasing teacher compensation for the fifth year in a row, continuing to lower the tax rate for all North Carolinians so that everyone has more money in their pockets, expanding school choice options for children with disabilities through our new Education Savings Accounts, and building up the rainy-day fund to nearly $2 billion.
These are amazing accomplishments stacked upon a previous strong track record. Yet for the purpose of this writing I wanted to highlight legislative accomplishments that were created through my office and became law with the help of the General Assembly.
Let’s start with the rebuilding of the Teaching Fellows program. My office created the Education Endowment Fund three years ago for the purpose of recruiting, retaining and rewarding our highest performing public school teachers. This past year, with the leadership of Sen. Chad Barefoot and Rep. Craig Horn, the Education Endowment Fund was used to create scholarships for students entering specific schools of education in our state to be trained in hard-to-staff areas of STEM and Exceptional Children. At a time when schools across our country are struggling to staff STEM and special needs classrooms, particularly in low performing school districts, the Teaching Fellows Program will help address those areas of concern in North Carolina, raising the bar for the quality of education afforded to underserved students.
Another bill that I am proud of is the creation of First Responders Day, making Sept. 11 an official State Holiday. Throughout the year, on specific dates, we as a state and country honor our military, veterans and those that have made the ultimate sacrifice. We are thankful for all those that put their lives on the line to protect the freedoms that we cherish in our country. However, there are often-overlooked heroes in our communities who also risk their lives for our safety, security and well-being. Those are our first responders — our police officers, firefighters, EMT and state troopers. Each day these men and women suit up to protect and serve our communities throughout North Carolina. We felt it was time to set a day aside each year to honor these heroes. From here forward, Sept. 11 will be known as “First Responders Day.” This date will forever be remembered as a day in American history that showcased the resolve and heroism of first responders throughout our country.
I was also proud that my office could push through the “Restore/Preserve Campus Free Speech Act.” This law helps to restore and preserve free speech on our public university campuses. Pursuant to this law, the Board of Governors made a policy that shows our state’s commitment to intellectual and academic freedom. The job of government and our universities is not to shield individuals from speech they might find offensive, but to commit to the principles of free speech, including spontaneous demonstration and access to campus consistent with the First Amendment. The Board of Governors’ statutorily mandated policy also sets out disciplinary measures for students who interfere with the free speech rights of others.
And finally, we continued our work to eliminate the scourge of human trafficking in our state. Working with the Human Trafficking Commission, Sen. Shirley Randleman, and Rep. Allen McNeill, we passed a law increasing the punishment for human trafficking, funding the placement of awareness posters all over North Carolina, and cracking down on illicit massage practices. Importantly, we also gave the SBI original jurisdiction to investigate human trafficking cases.
As we usher in the new year, I commend the General Assembly for the dedicated work to our great state and look forward to continuing our nearly decade-long track record of making North Carolina a better place.
Dan Forest is the 34th lieutenant governor of North Carolina.