The Story N.C. Democrats Need To Tell

Fifty years of progress down the drain; the McCrory-Berger divide

Some pre-Fourth quickies:

Governing magazine, which covers state and local government issues throughout the nation, has a fascinating story in its July issue that doesn’t just cover North Carolina’s swing to the right but, unlike most such stories, places it in critical context.

In sum, the current GOP-dominated legislature is undoing nearly a century of homegrown progressivism–especially on economic issues–that turned the Tar Heel State from an agrarian backwater to one of the most forward-looking states in the nation, and certainly the most progressive in the South. The Governing piece grasps that clearly and lays out the consequences:

Starting in the 1920s, North Carolina took a different path to economic development than its low-tax Southern neighbors, adopting a “business progressivism” that emphasized spending on infrastructure and building a university system that would come to rank among the best in the country. For much of the last century there was generally a consensus in both parties around the idea that this public investment strategy was the best approach. The investment in the university system led to the creation of Research Triangle Park, an area stretching from Durham to Chapel Hill that’s now home to more than 170 companies. “The corporate leadership went along with the political leadership and the public investments they supported,” says Rep. Paul Luebke, a Democrat with more than two decades in office.

The state has always been socially conservative (it was one of the last to adopt a state lottery and liberalize the sale of alcoholic beverages), but the new Republican majority has also tacked to the right on economic policy. It has reduced spending on public education, rejected Medicaid expansion, cut unemployment benefits, repealed the Earned Income Tax Credit, passed billions of dollars in tax cuts and rolled back hundreds of environmental regulations …

The tax plan Republicans passed last year eliminates $2.4 billion in state revenue over the next five years, making it harder to maintain the university system at its current spending levels and keep pace with K-12 enrollment if it doesn’t spur the kind of growth lawmakers argue it will. In overall dollars, K-12 spending is higher than it was before the recession, but that’s not the case when accounting for inflation and a 7.2 percent enrollment jump since 2004. The more polarizing changes under Republicans include ending teacher tenure, eliminating a cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state, rescinding a policy that gives pay increases for those with a master’s degree, passing a school voucher plan and most recently pitching a plan to allow students to attend schools outside their home districts. District leaders in Wake County, home to Raleigh, have blamed those changes and stagnant pay for a 41 percent increase in teacher turnover in the past year. “It is palpable how upset people are about public schools,” says Sen. Josh Stein, the Democratic whip. “It comes down to a fundamental choice between millionaires and teachers.”

There’s a story here for Kay Hagan or any other Democrat to tell here that adds a dimension to the established they’re-hurting-the-people line, and it has the added advantage of being true: These people have taken a wrecking ball to the very things that have made North Carolina a success: commitments to public education, infrastructure, and opportunities for everyone. It’s a story candidates ought to tell, again and again, all the way through the 2016 elections.

The Governing story rightly identifies Gov. McCrory as a leader of the right-wing revolution–the mobile version features a photo of McCrory, scowling and arms folded, looking like the villainous high school principal in a John Hughes film–but the governor lately has shown himself to be a notch more reasonable than the most unreasonable elements in his own party.

The most recent example: The governor’s promise to veto Senate Bill 793, which sets out operating rules for the state’s nascent charter school system, if it passes the legislature with a provision to keep employees’ salaries hidden from the public.

“We need transparency of salary information for all public schools–both traditional and charter schools,” McCrory said. He’s right.

Whether this is a genuine case of the governor doing the right thing or simply trying to set himself apart politically from Mr. Berger and his Gang of 50 is open for debate. Either way, it’s welcome. Minimal in light of everything else, but welcome.

Because the alternative is the aforementioned Mr. Berger. Chris Fitzsimon at NC Policy Watch zeroes in on what the General Assembly’s ongoing budget impasse is really about:

Berger told WRAL-TV that any budget deal must not only include the Senate’s estimates of Medicaid costs but must also reduce the number of people who are covered by the program.

Berger said the Senate wanted “reductions in the welfare spending that is ongoing at the present time.” Medicaid, the health care safety net for the most vulnerable people in North Carolina, is now welfare in Berger’s far-right view of the world.

The budget the Senate passed earlier this session would kick at least 5,200 aged, blind and disabled people off of Medicaid. More than 1,600 of them have Alzheimer’s or dementia and are in special care units, which to Berger must be a new fancy way of saying welfare.

And the numbers are conservative estimates. They come from a conservative Berger knows well, State Budget Director and Republican Party benefactor Art Pope, who detailed what the Medicaid cuts would mean in a recent appearance before the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Fitzsimon notes that the “budget crisis” could disappear tomorrow if the legislature just cancelled the next round of tax cuts, scheduled to take effect Jan. 1. This obviously is not an option. Lovely people we’ve put in charge of what was a pretty good place to live just a few years ago.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest