At the close of a momentous year for politics and public policy in North Carolina – a year that challenged many people of faith to act on their beliefs — we again might find ourselves wondering whether things have to get worse before they can get better.
That “things” got worse for many of the state’s residents during 2013 there’s little doubt. They are the people who, for example, found their unemployment benefits unnecessarily chopped, or who are sending their kids to schools where teacher assistants have been laid off.
More broadly, all of us are worse off when the tax system is altered in ways that make it both less fair and less capable of raising the revenue needed to finance important public services. As citizens in a democratic republic, we all are lessened by changes in election laws that make it harder to vote.
Here’s the silver lining: None of this took place in a vacuum of ignorance, impotence or apathy.
The conservatives who control the General Assembly, operating in tandem with a like-minded governor, may have pulled the state’s reins hard to the right. As they did so, however, they caused thousands of North Carolinians to reflect on the policies and values that have marked their state as a place where “the weak grow strong and the strong grow great.”
Thus emerged the outlines of a counter-movement that aims to put the conservative agenda to the test. As that competition unfolds in the months to come, there’s much damage to be undone in a state where the government’s capacity to deal with social challenges such as poverty and inequality of opportunity has been undermined. But there’s also room to hope for a brighter future if good sense and good will prevail.
For the Republicans who strengthened their hold on both the state House and Senate, 2013 was a long-awaited chance to put their ideals of limited government fully into practice. There would be no significant objections from the governor’s office, as there were during the two previous years, when Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue made frequent use of her veto stamp and sometimes prevailed. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, elected in 2012, issued only two vetoes this year – neither of them sustained.
Legislators’ decisions on taxes and the state budget – choices that helped set the overall tone of their work – came in the context of an economy struggling to emerge from a recession that ravaged the workforce and put immense pressure on state services as revenues lagged.
Many programs already had seen appropriations whittled to comply with the state constitution’s mandate for a balanced budget. The $20.6 billion budget approved for the fiscal year that began in July allowed for a slight overall rise in spending, but not enough to maintain service levels in several key areas.
Education, the state’s largest budget category, was especially hard hit. The public schools, community colleges and universities were put through a financial wringer. Budget policies threatened to erode quality by, for example, stripping teachers of their modest job security known as career status.
Stagnant teacher pay levels that have dropped to 46th in the country while class sizes have risen signal a troubling loss of resolve by decision-makers to invest in the schools. That shrinks a critically important pathway to opportunity for all the state’s young people, regardless of family circumstances – a social justice issue that’s an urgent priority for groups such as the NC Council of Churches.
A shifting load
The recession’s aftermath would have been hard for budget-writers to navigate even if the state’s tax laws had remained unchanged. But the Republican consensus was that what the state’s economy really needed was a jolt from tax cuts, giving taxpayers – including employers — more money to spend and hopefully helping to create jobs.
Out the window went North Carolina’s progressive personal income tax, under which higher-income earners have paid at higher rates. The new system, effective in 2014, lowers the tax to 5.8 percent – a change that chiefly benefits those who earn the most. The corporate tax also falls while the sales tax is broadened.
The upshot is that the overall tax burden shifts toward ordinary residents in the middle or lower reaches of the income range. At the same time, the state will forgo an estimated $2.4 billion in revenue over five years. That will make it all the harder to offer the services – education in particular – that ordinary residents count on to survive the economic storms.
Other decisions at the Legislative Building added insult to injury for vulnerable North Carolinians. While the state’s unemployment rate has come down a bit, it has remained one of the country’s highest. Still, legislators trimmed unemployment benefits and at the same time triggered a loss of extended federal benefits for the long-term jobless.
That’s a callous, sink-or-swim mandate to thousands of people who now face an even tougher time keeping a roof over their heads or food on the table. Are we supposed to think the specter of their children going hungry will motivate people to go get jobs that actually don’t exist? Chances are that some of those folks also will be among those missing out on new health insurance options – not because they make too much but because they make too little.
Health in the balance
Republican legislative leaders, in step with Gov. McCrory and GOP decision-makers elsewhere, have opposed the Affordable Care Act championed by President Obama and have declined to help get the program up and running. That’s undercut the goal of extending affordable health insurance to many people who’ve been frozen out of the market and who thus have had to make do without regular and appropriate access to doctors and hospitals.
There have been plenty of problems with the law’s rollout that have been more in the nature of self-inflicted wounds by those trying to implement it, but legislators who seem content with a status quo in which millions lack health insurance have to share the blame.
The law offers subsidies to lower-income earners to help them meet the costs of health coverage. But at the same time, it envisions a broadening of Medicaid to serve more than the poorest of the poor. North Carolina was one of the states that took advantage of flexibility granted by the U.S. Supreme Court and decided not to expand Medicaid after all. That has cast upwards of 300,000 residents into a “coverage gap” in which they make too little to qualify for Affordable Care Act subsidies but too much to qualify for Medicaid.
The cost of expanding Medicaid would have been borne by the federal government for the first three years, with the federal share dropping to 90 percent after that. So now North Carolina taxpayers get to help fund broader Medicaid benefits in other states, but see none of that money reinvested here – it’s estimated at $15 billion over the first six years — to help their neighbors with their health care.
The argument is that our state government can’t afford the expansion. But really, it comes down to politics and priorities – and it’s clear that helping lower-income residents get more dependable, cost-efficient care isn’t a legislative priority. “Let them use the emergency room!” has the same ring as “Let them eat cake!”
If the legislative majority turned a cold shoulder to people struggling to pay for health care, it reserved a warm embrace for business interests hoping not only to pay less in taxes but also to weaken state oversight of their operations.
The “business-friendly” flag was hoisted at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, where regulatory staffs were slashed. Polluting industries could take heart that new roadblocks to regulation and enforcement would make their lives easier even if it meant new risks to the state’s air and water, on whose cleanliness we all depend.
Conservatives checked another item off their to-do list this year when they repealed the state’s cutting-edge law intended to fight racial bias in the imposition of death sentences. The Racial Justice Act already had been diluted to make it harder for a convicted murderer or someone on trial for his life to claim that race figured in the sentence they faced. Now the law was scrapped entirely.
The only good news, for those of us who think the death penalty should be abolished as error-prone and inherently unfair, is that North Carolina’s unofficial capital punishment moratorium continues despite a legislative push to end it. Locking up murderers for life with no possibility of parole may be less satisfying for those who want vengeance, but it’s safer than a system that’s produced its share of wrongful convictions and that still labors under the shadow of decades of discrimination against black citizens.
Conservative legislators pushing a retrograde agenda in league with a compliant governor is not a formula for good decisions, at least not by the lights of those who want to see the state’s course set according to principles of justice, equity and careful stewardship.
But legislators who broke bad on a host of policy matters did even worse, from a public interest standpoint, in seeking to insulate themselves from voters who would try to hold them to account. They enacted a sweeping law clearly aimed at cutting into vote totals among people likely to support candidates who favor better treatment of teachers, fairer tax policy and stricter environmental regulation, among other progressive causes.
The law began as a bill to have North Carolina join other Republican-controlled states in requiring photo identification to vote (at least to vote in-person, since absentee voters aren’t covered). The rationale was that an ID requirement would reduce instances of fraud. Yet fraud by impersonation occurs so rarely that it can’t be regarded as a serious threat to election integrity. It’s also a felony offense, for anyone who would take the risk.
Instead, making people show a photo ID is a tactic that weighs most heavily on people who don’t have a driver’s license or the other documents they’d need to get a non-driving ID card from the Division of Motor Vehicles. Those people tend to be either older or younger than average, and also poorer. Notably, their votes tend to favor Democrats.
The bill was approved by the House and sent to the Senate. Leaders there bided there time – until the Supreme Court issued a decision weakening federal oversight of changes to election laws. Then they expanded the bill into an aggressive, multipronged effort to skew the electorate in ways that help Republicans hold power.
The early voting period – popular especially among African-American voters, who in recent years have made up part of the usual Democratic base – was cut from 17 days to 10. An early-voting Sunday was eliminated, likely hindering drives to get “souls to the polls.” Same-day registration will no longer be an option for early voters, and high school students won’t be able to pre-register before turning 18.
The ID rule, when it takes effect in 2016, will be what has been described as the nation’s most restrictive. College student IDs, even those issued by the state’s public universities, won’t be accepted. For people who don’t have one of the valid IDs, the hassle involved in getting one – perhaps requiring a trip to a DMV office now open in some counties only once per month – is bound to be a deterrent to voting. Mindful of the disproportionate effect on black citizens, the U.S. Justice Department is among those seeking to have the law overturned as discriminatory.
Campaign money chase
There’s more mischief embedded in the law’s 50-odd pages. With the cost of judicial elections and the potential influence of special-interest campaign contributors becoming a national concern, North Carolina wisely put itself ahead of the curve with its program for the public financing of appellate judicial races. That program, in use for a decade, helped keep costs down and helped keep judges from having to raise money from people who might end up with matters before the courts.
Public financing, though, runs afoul of conservative ideology, besides tending to dull the fundraising advantage often enjoyed by conservative candidates. So the legislature sent the program down the tubes, along with a parallel one covering the statewide elected posts of state auditor, insurance commissioner and superintendent of public instruction. How is augmenting the role of private contributors in choosing these officials likely to improve the state’s political climate or the quality of its governance?
Thousands of voices
The tide of opposition to the conservative agenda rose steadily from protests organized by the state chapter of the NAACP. Convening on “Moral Mondays,” crowds that came to number in the thousands decried a whole series of misguided, hurtful decisions targeting teachers, the unemployed, folks without health care coverage. Many protestors took their grievances inside the Legislative Building, where more than 900 were arrested after committing peaceable civil disobedience. People affiliated with the NC Council of Churches were active participants.
The story went national as an example of how an outraged citizenry could push back against legislators contemptuous of their state’s moderate traditions – traditions of government that helped North Carolina make respectable progress against the age-old banes of ignorance and poverty. The Council of Churches and its allies hope that 2014 brings more success for those fighting this good fight, and that it brings a deeper appreciation among policymakers of how best to do their duty towards all the people, the humblest among us included.