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A state in decline, indeed

It’s tough living in a state in decline.
But New Yorkers are a gritty bunch — gotta be to withstand those winters. They can deal with it.
You were thinking North Carolina was the state in decline, given last week’s New York Times editorial (“The decline of North Carolina”) that lambasted our Republican-led state legislature for presiding over a “demolition derby” of measures that, to hear the Times tell it, has basically booted the poor and elderly into the gutter, banished children to one-room schools, forced the jobless to subsist on dog food and muddy tap water while re-instituting poll taxes and segregated water fountains.
If I exaggerate a bit, forgive me. I’ve fallen under the influence of the Times’ overwrought rhetorical style.

What’s deliciously ironic about the Times’ condemnation is that New York’s state government isn’t exactly a paragon of virtue. That’s not my opinion. That’s the finding of a recent report from the Center for Public Integrity, which rated all 50 state legislatures in matters of ethics and corruption. New York ranked 37th and received a failing grade (D) — in part because of a string of recent scandals that culminated in a federal corruption case against a state senator accused of trying to bribe his way onto a mayoral ticket. The bribery case, the CPI report said, “highlights some of the endemic corruption problems that have plagued New York’s legislature in Albany, where politicians are frequently accused of exchanging cash for securing state funds and candidates exchange donations for political support.”

New York may eventually be the only state where you can buy a politician but not a Big Gulp.
Sounds like former N.C. House Speaker Jim Black would be right at home there. As we know from recent history, North Carolina has had its share of feckless and faithless lawmakers, but new ethics laws have at least addressed that particular decline. In the CPI report, North Carolina ranks 16th with a passing ethics grade of C-minus. Good enough to get you through Harvard — and perhaps into the presidency.
OK, you might argue, even though New York lawmakers may occasionally play loose with ethics laws, their hearts are in the right place regarding care for the vulnerable and the education of children, right? You be the judge.
The Times points out that North Carolina has the nation’s fifth-highest jobless rate (8.8 percent). True, but New York rises only to 18th from the bottom (7.6 percent). While its jobless benefits are more generous, that’s apparently no panacea for the populace. Based on the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey, about 16 percent of New York’s population lives in poverty. That’s better than North Carolina’s 17.9 percent. But it means more than 3 million New York state residents are still waiting for their economic fortunes to improve.
Based on some economic development surveys, they may be waiting a while.
“Site Selection” magazine recently ranked North Carolina No. 1 in terms of its business climate. New York state didn’t even make the top 25.
In another ranking, Forbes magazine rated North Carolina No. 4 in the nation for business and growth prospects. New York came in 23rd.

As for the Times’ excoriation of North Carolina’s miserly spending on public education, ranking 46th in per-capita education dollars, you’ll find no disagreement here that the state needs to spend more money on education, not less. But if results, not spending, are the barometer, New York hardly has bragging rights. Take graduation rates, a national concern that tops many education priority lists. New York’s cohort graduation rate for the class of 2012 was 74 percent — while North Carolina’s rate inched up to 80.4 percent.
What about test scores? To compare apples to apples, we might consider some results from the National Assessment of Education, which schools administer under No Child Left Behind. New York state’s most recent “report card” shows that 32 percent of its fourth graders fail to read at the “basic” level — the same percentage as in North Carolina. On the fourth-grade math assessment, 20 percent of New York’s students scored below basic competency, compared to 12 percent of North Carolina’s fourth-graders.

Given the state’s lackluster educational statistics, its perfidious government officials, the millions living in poverty and its dim economic development prospects, you might wonder why the good people of New York aren’t converging on the state capitol each Monday, demanding better leadership.
The reason might be related to New York’s horrible roads, 60 percent of which are in poor or mediocre condition, according to an annual engineering report on the nation’s infrastructure. Perhaps disgruntled residents aren’t venting their outrage in Albany because the bus ride is just too rough.

Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.

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