Of the many decisions and activities that unfold in the arena of public affairs, the ones that tend to show up on the NC Council of Churches’ radar are those affecting the quality of social justice in our state.
The Council stands for policies and their associated programs that offer support, relief and prospects for a brighter future to our vulnerable neighbors and fellow residents.
That doesn’t mean reckless handouts. It means reasonable public efforts to keep the working poor, children, the income-strapped elderly, immigrants, people with disabilities and those still bearing the burden of discrimination from falling into that abyss marked by joblessness, hunger, ill health and loss of hope. Or, if that abyss is where they’re found, to help lift them out.
By these measures, North Carolina’s leaders who can sustain those public efforts – the General Assembly and the governor – could have done better in 2014. Much better.
The year now coming to a close amounted to a disappointing sequel to the follies that monopolized the state’s political stage in 2013, when for the first time in more than a century Republican conservatives controlled both the governorship and both houses of the legislature.
This was, and remains, a group whose top priorities are to cut taxes, cut spending and cut regulation – in other words, to reduce state government’s scope and influence. The rationale has to do with the supposed beneficial effect on businesses, and hence on the economy and the job market.
Those are worthy goals, no doubt. But it’s far from clear that the state’s business climate is improved when, for example, funding for public education is squeezed by a revenue shortage caused by rash tax-cutting. What is clear is that the conservative, small-government approach is likely to leave many North Carolinians – especially those who start each day facing the disadvantages of poverty or sickness or lack of opportunity – written off as collateral damage.
Budget’s hard lessons
Football teams have their playbooks. Governments have their budgets. That’s where the key decisions are made regarding how public resources will be allocated.
Together with a tax code that determines who pays and how much, a budget makes a statement about public values. The Council’s hope is that those values include a proper concern for residents for whom circumstances have not been kind – and indeed for the whole spectrum of ordinary folks, working hard and doing their best for their families and communities.
It’s no wonder that even under a hard-right legislative regime, public education – the schools, the community colleges, the universities – swallows up the lion’s share of the state budget. Starting even with pre-kindergarten classes, these are the services that allow our young people to claim a foothold on the ladder toward fulfilling lives. They’re the services that help employers large and small have access to a capable, knowledgeable workforce.
North Carolina’s business community was once solidly in favor of education investments as a matter of enlightened self-interest. Many of the state’s business leaders still hold to that view. But conservative politicians have stoked an upsurge of disdain for the people who actually make the academic wheels go round and for the public education enterprise in general.
That disdain, both unwarranted and destructive, is emblazoned throughout the education pages of the budget. It’s true that last year, faced with what shaped up as a national embarrassment, the legislature agreed to put an additional $282 million into teacher salaries. The raises, said to average 7 percent, were focused on teachers at the outset of their careers – perhaps helping to stem an exodus of junior teachers from the classroom and a dwindling of recruits to the profession.
Yet veteran teachers – those who have learned the ropes and who can be entrusted with mentoring their eventual successors – were given raises so minimal that they felt like a slap in the face. North Carolina’s overall average teacher pay may improve beyond its current abysmal ranking of 46th in the nation, but likely not by much. And teachers still must cope with skimpy outlays for necessities such as textbooks and supplies – while the legislature showers its favors on loosely regulated charter and private schools that get to choose their students.
The higher education picture is no rosier. Funding for the University of North Carolina system has stagnated after years of belt-tightening, even amid the state’s steady population growth. Tuition continues to rise, putting more stress on students and parents, and a Board of Governors now in the hands of Republican appointees seems eager to narrow the range of campus opportunities and endeavors. This is not a healthy time for the institutions that for decades have been a springboard for so much of North Carolina’s progress.
A principal aim of the Republicans who have seized the reins in Raleigh has been to reduce the tax burden on companies and individuals, making tax levels here more competitive with those in surrounding states and ideally giving the economy a boost as tax savings are channeled into purchases and investments. Nobody wants to see taxes any higher than necessary to finance the activities of an effective government. The debate hinges on just how extensive those activities should be – and on whether lower taxes really translate into broad economic gains.
As for the tax-cutting goal, legislators and Gov. Pat McCrory can put that in the category of mission accomplished. Cuts in personal and corporate income taxes enacted in 2013 took effect at the outset of this year. The upshot has been a substantial hit to state revenues – a loss originally projected to be in the range of $500 million annually, but at this point in the budget cycle on track to be even greater.
The winners, if they can be called that, are higher-income taxpayers who proportionately received the biggest break and who now pay at the same rate as everybody else, along with companies that also have seen their rates reduced.
Less revenue has meant pressure to hold down spending across the board. That affects not only the schools and universities but also, for example, programs to protect natural resources, to fight pollution and to enhance workplace safety. It affects funding for the court system – now at levels equivalent to a diet of bread and water, and a threat to the quality of justice.
It makes Republican legislators who are predisposed to resist President Obama’s health insurance reforms even more wary of extending the state’s Medicaid program because of what they see as a risk of untenable financial obligations down the road. If those legislators weren’t so determined to keep taxes down no matter what, they wouldn’t have such a ready excuse to avoid doing something that would lead to better health care for upwards of 300,000 low-income residents.
Of course, opposition to Medicaid expansion has as much to do with anti-Obama politics and conservative ideology as it does with practicalities. The costs of an expanded program would be borne by the federal government for the first three years, after which the state would have to contribute.
Whether federal or state, the expenses are real enough. But the benefits, in terms of a flow of job-creating federal money into the state and a healthier populace, would be just as real. This boils down to a moral imperative: If we can extend health coverage under Medicaid to many thousands of our struggling neighbors, we should do it. That’s an objective high on the Council of Churches’ agenda as we move into 2015.
Showdown at the polls
The legislature’s Republican majority dates from the 2010 elections, when conservatives rode an anti-Obama wave driven by the recession’s miseries and their expedient bashing of “Obamacare.” And having landed in a partisan sweet spot, they were quick to exploit it.
This was their chance to redraw the boundaries of congressional and legislative districts, in accord with the once-a-decade federal census. So along came the consultants with their computers and special software to contort the lines to the GOP’s maximum advantage. Areas with heavy numbers of Democratic voters were cordoned into their own districts, leaving Republican candidates in the adjacent districts to enjoy smooth sailing.
In 2012, Republicans increased their margins of control in both the House and Senate, while McCrory won his race for governor. That set the stage for two years of what, by North Carolina standards, has amounted to government by the radical right.
The GOP’s redistricting schemes were challenged in court by civil rights groups who charged that their effect was to unlawfully minimize the power of African-American voters, many of whom tend to favor Democrats and who found themselves “packed” into Democrat-heavy districts. The state Supreme Court on Dec. 19 rejected that argument (with two Democratic members issuing a dissent).
No one will be surprised to see the case now migrate toward the US Supreme Court, where similar lawsuits over redistricting have gotten the justices’ attention. In any event, legislators could put an end to such disputes and make the redistricting process fair to all if they agreed to assign the task to their nonpartisan professional staff. A bill to that effect has drawn support from both Democrats and Republicans, but GOP leaders have not been willing to surrender their advantage. In the public interest, they should.
But lest we forget, these are the same leaders who in 2013 moved to tighten their hold at the polls with a series of changes to the state’s election laws. The election held on Nov. 4 was the first under the new rules – with one major exception. The requirement that voters produce a government-issued photo ID doesn’t kick in until 2016. So 2015 will be a year of preparation and education, if people who otherwise should be entitled to vote aren’t to be frozen out for lack of the right document.
This past fall, there were three main changes: 1) the early voting period was cut from 17 days to 10, 2) the option to register and vote on the same day during early voting was eliminated, and 3) voters who went to a precinct other than the one to which they were assigned were no longer allowed to cast a provisional ballot, to be counted once their address was verified.
Again, civil rights groups went to court to try to keep these changes from taking effect. Although a panel of judges on the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that early voting and same-day registration should proceed as they had before, the US Supreme Court turned that ruling aside.
When voices go unheard
The election reform group Democracy North Carolina estimated that perhaps as many as 50,000 people who would have cast votes under the prior law were deterred or prevented from voting in this year’s general election. Since the hardship fell more heavily on groups of voters who often tend to support Democrats, it’s tempting to speculate whether incumbent Democratic US Sen. Kay Hagan might have edged her challenger, Republican House Speaker and now Sen.-elect Thom Tillis, if the old rules had been in effect.
Tillis is due to be succeeded as speaker by Rep. Tim Moore of Kings Mountain, who has helped drive the House’s conservative agenda as chair of the Rules Committee. State capital watchers now are curious to see if Moore, like Tillis, aligns with Gov. McCrory on major policy questions, taking a more moderate line than the Senate’s leader, President Pro Tem Phil Berger.
One early fault line could involve Medicaid expansion, which the McCrory administration has signaled it might be willing to consider. The Senate’s opposition so far seems firm. Moore, while he’s been skeptical of the idea, could wind up as the man in the middle.
The election results last month were in some respects underwhelming for the progressive forces who had mounted a determined response to the capital conservatives. Their response flowed out of the Moral Monday movement that crystallized in 2013 under the leadership of the NAACP’s North Carolina chapter. In 2014, the Moral Monday theme turned from protest – nearly 1,000 people had been arrested the year before after engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience – to organizing and getting people to the polls.
Hagan’s candidacy failed to light a spark sufficient to overcome measures intended to hold down the progressive vote. But there was enough pushback to erode the conservatives’ edge in the House and, for example, to sweep four Republican commissioners out of office in Wake County.
Another chapter in the voting rights saga remains to be written. That’s because the federal courts have yet to hear arguments on the merits of lawsuits charging that the election law changes enacted in 2013 amounted to unconstitutional attempts to suppress the vote of African-Americans and young people.
A trial to consider civil rights groups’ complaints is scheduled for next summer. If the courts rule in those groups’ favor, perhaps it then could be said that North Carolina’s conservative tide had begun to recede. And for those concerned about government’s role in protecting the interests of the vulnerable among us, that will be a day when the sun comes up bright and shining.