There’s no getting around the fact that when North Carolinians went to the polls on Nov. 5, they gave a thumbs-up to the conservatives who’ve been in charge at the General Assembly for the last four years – doing damage that calls to mind the proverbial elephant in a china shop.
Republican victories might not all have been overwhelming (putting aside those districts rendered virtually immune from competition by GOP gerrymandering), and in a handful of cases Democratic challengers emerged on top.
But when the dust settled, the rightward tilt in the legislature was secure for another two years. To few people’s surprise, we should add.
Despite a strong progressive pushback to the conservative agenda – Moral Monday protests that drew widespread attention, a determined get-out-the-vote campaign – this election was overshadowed by the dreary dynamics of national politics. President Obama, on the downhill after six turbulent years in office, became a lightning rod for a host of grievances stoked by conservative opportunists. Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan – playing defense as a raging moderate – was taken down by Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis’ incessant Obama-bashing.
With Tillis now Washington-bound, House Republicans in Raleigh will choose another leader, and it has to be said that Tillis will be a hard act to follow. He kept his chamber’s conservative trains running on time while managing to avoid some of the tea partyesque dead ends that seemed to intrigue the state Senate under President Pro Tem Phil Berger.
The new speaker would do well, in terms of both politics and policy, to maintain that relatively moderate posture. Certainly Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, facing a re-election bid in 2016 and doubtless eager to remind voters of his own moderate credentials as a former mayor of Charlotte, would appreciate not being painted into a hard-right corner by his supposed GOP allies. A well-run Democratic campaign could force McCrory to defend the indefensible in a state where Democratic voters are seldom far from a majority in high-profile races, even if they’ve lately come up short.
Choices that matter
It’s the policy choices, though, that will continue to affect the lives of this state’s residents – whether they have access to good schools and high-quality universities; whether their communities offer an ample supply of well-paying jobs; whether they are spared the consequences of polluted air and water; whether they can obtain timely, affordable health care.
In too many cases, the legislature as led for the last four years by Tillis and Berger, and with McCrory’s assent for the last two, has failed to honor those priorities. Yes, the conservative agenda has been characterized as being all about boosting business, relieving taxpayers and creating jobs. But the overall impact has been to depress the state’s prospects, not enhance them, as worthy investments have been stifled by tax cuts that drain money from the state budget’s spending side.
Those tax cuts – whose benefits flow mainly to folks with higher incomes – are projected to cause a revenue decline of some $500 million a year from previous levels, likely even more based on trends since the current fiscal year began in July.
That’s not enough to bankrupt a state whose budget exceeds $20 billion. But it’s enough, for example, to have made it that much harder for legislators to respond to a crisis in teacher pay, which had sunk to an average of 48th in the country.
Beginning and junior teachers will get raises up to 7 percent. But the veterans who are the backbone of most school faculties will get peanuts. A forward-thinking General Assembly will find a way to make sure those veterans are paid more in line with their expertise, their loyalty and their value to public education. And it won’t do so by stripping funds from some other key area of the budget.
McCrory has signaled he may be ready to part company with legislative hardliners over another issue that has left North Carolina bucking both compassion and common sense.
The issue is whether to expand the state’s Medicaid program, enabling upwards of 300,000 low-income residents to receive health care without having to go to hospital emergency rooms (where uninsured patients’ costs are passed along to other consumers) or to charity clinics. These are residents who don’t earn enough to qualify for subsidies under the Affordable Care Act championed by President Obama.
The legislature has turned down federal money that would pay for the expansion during its first three years, citing Medicaid’s cost-control problems and concerns that the state eventually might wind up on the hook for services it couldn’t afford. But the opposition also has jibed with Republican efforts to frustrate Obama’s health care initiative.
McCrory now suggests he may be prepared to join some other GOP governors and recommend accepting the federal money, which would help smaller hospitals stay solvent while giving thousands of poor, sick people the kind of care that the more fortunate among us take for granted. Even Tillis, in the throes of his contest with Hagan, seemed to be softening on the Medicaid issue. Whoever succeeds him as speaker has every reason in the world to take those cues and lead colleagues away from the partisan brink.
Election changes in play
When Moral Monday protesters rallied at the Legislative Building for months during the spring and summer of 2013, picking up again during the legislative session last spring, a chief complaint focused on the Republican-led overhaul of election laws making it less convenient for some residents to vote.
The changes compressed the early voting period this fall and eliminated the ability to register and vote on the same day during that period. Surely there were some people with hectic schedules and heavy family demands who essentially were frozen out of the process, and get-out-the-vote efforts must have been to some extent hindered. Whether that kind of GOP-sponsored voter suppression, as critics understandably described it, affected the Hagan-Tillis race is something for the post-election number-crunchers to ponder.
The election law change that drew the most attention doesn’t kick in until 2016, when someone seeking to vote will have to show a government-issued photo ID. For most of us, that means a driver’s license. Who lacks a driver’s license, a passport, a military ID or one of the other acceptable means of proving who they are? Hint – it’s typically not an affluent suburbanite. It’s more likely someone who might not even be able to afford a car. Perhaps someone who belongs to a racial minority and who tends to favor progressive candidates.
The Council of Churches has been deeply concerned that by tightening up on opportunities to vote, the state risks disenfranchising vulnerable people whose best hope for influence in the public arena comes via the ballot box. The ID rule has been presented as an antidote to fraud, but it’s really a solution in search of a problem, driven by partisan expediency.
Voters who lack proper IDs are supposed to be able to get non-driver’s identity cards from the state DMV. There’s the potential for a serious hassle factor if the DMV isn’t well-equipped to handle requests for those cards, and if it hasn’t been made clear from the top that the agency’s role is to assist, not to frustrate, would-be voters.
Conservatives have enough strength in the legislature to do pretty much what they want over the next two years. But if they overplay their hand more than they’ve done already, the closely divided electorate could punish them readily enough. A good-faith response to valid concerns about the voter ID rule would send another welcome signal that cooler legislative heads have the potential to prevail.