In North Carolina, full speed in reverse

By Rob Schofield, NC Policy Watch

The 2013 session of the North Carolina General Assembly gets underway in earnest today and if the statements and signals from Governor McCrory, Budget Director Pope, Senate President Pro Tem Berger and House Speaker Tillis are to be believed, the next four to five months will be among the darkest in the modern history of our state. After several decades of modest but relatively steady progress, North Carolina is now fully committed to a sharp and violent U-turn.

Whether it's in the field of economic and fiscal policy, K-12 and higher education, civil rights, the social safety net, consumer rights, workers' rights, the natural environment, women's rights, public safety, or many other areas, North Carolina is now under the more or less complete control of conservative ideologues. These are not just country clubbers or tight-fisted businesspeople; these are zealous true believers on the make for whom the policies of states like South Carolina and Mississippi are the role models and declarations of obscure Austrian economists and selected positions of a troubled Russian-born novelist are the philosophical guideposts.

Think this sounds a bit alarmist? Well then consider the following signals, statements and news items from recent weeks as they relate to several of the most important subjects on the 2013 state legislative agenda:

Unemployment insurance "reform" – This may seem like a surprising topic to list first, but it is actually enormously important for several substantive and symbolic reasons. Think about it: Unemployment Insurance (UI) is by far North Carolina's largest and most important safety net/middle class preservation program. Over the course of the Great Recession and its aftermath, UI has put billions of dollars into the pockets of hundreds of thousands of families and helped preserve scores of communities that would have otherwise gone to seed.

Unfortunately, radical change to the UI system (what one national expert has described as literally unprecedented change in the United States) is likely to the first major legislation considered this year. Reports from the General Assembly indicate that a 70-plus page bill will be heard for the first time, considered, amended and voted on all in one House Finance Committee meeting tomorrow. Any public comment will also have to be squeezed into what figures to be a 90-minute meeting. Passage by the full House would likely come next week.

And what will the proposal do? Well no one knows for certain, because the bill hasn't even been formally introduced yet -- that will presumably happen today -- but every indication is that the proposal will slash benefits and eligibility dramatically. And, in one of the cruelest, most mean-spirited steps that one could conceive of, the proposal will also cut off around 80,000 families from the federally-funded extended benefits program as of July 1. That's right, in a move that could only be justifiable in some strange, twisted, Ayn Rand novel (Raleigh’s News & Observer calls the whole thing "preposterous"), North Carolina lawmakers will turn away $25 million a week from the federal government that currently goes to support struggling families and communities.

Talk about your symbolic first steps!

Tax "reform" – But, of course, the radical UI changes are just the appetizer. The real heavy lifting when it comes to altering North Carolina's social contract for the long-term seems likely to take place in the form of a large and regressive tax code overhaul. Here, despite reams of compelling analysis demonstrating that the state tax code is already inadequate to fund essential services and tilted heavily in favor of the wealthy and large corporate actors, conservative ideologues are bent upon making each of these shortcomings worse in the service of the long-discredited trickledown theory that economic growth is somehow tied to slashing taxes at the top.

And to make the whole thing even more troubling, the apparent plan of implementation involves a strange but transparent bit of political theatre in which far right advocacy groups funded by the state budget director are publicly calling for the actual abolition of the state personal and corporate income taxes and the director himself is professing to be troubled by such an idea. Before long, of course, conservative lawmakers will be touting a "compromise" plan in which income taxes are only cut significantly and made less progressive and, in all likelihood, taxes on households in the middle and at the bottom rise. Look also for the revival of the destructive concept of the so-called "taxpayer bill of rights" -- a terrible and destructive idea that would artificially cap state spending with a constitutional amendment.

The bottom line: Absent some kind of loud and persistent uprising from average voters, North Carolina will soon adopt a tax code that is less adequate, less stable and less fair than any it has had since the 1930’s.

Education "reform" – In keeping with the safety net and tax changes, conservative proposals in the area of public schools and higher education seem certain to emphasize the supposed genius of "market" (i.e. corporate) forces over once predominant values like the common good, shared sacrifice, citizenship or, God forbid, human enlightenment. In 2013, look for lots of new proposals to: de-emphasize traditional public schools, introduce vouchers for private and religious schools, further expand charter schools (both for-profit and nonprofit) and further marginalize classroom teachers by eliminating the requirement that schools have good cause to fire them.

A similar approach was explicitly forecast for the university system just yesterday morning when Governor McCrory went on a national right-wing radio show to attack what he called "the educational elite" and to claim that job preparation was essentially the system's only legitimate mission.

Mandatory photo ID for voting – Despite report after report indicating that hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians likely lack government photo ID (most of them poor, disabled, elderly and/or of color), that voter fraud is not a significant problem and that what fraud there is almost certainly occurs with absentee ballots, conservative leaders seem bent upon passing a law that will require the display of a government-issued photo ID for any North Carolinian who wishes to exercise their constitutional right to vote in person.

More destructive attacks on the environment – You'd have thought last session's carnage in which vast portions of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources were simply razed or sent packing would have satisfied conservative ideologues but it looks like it was merely a warm-up for 2013. The Department's new boss has already questioned global climate change and taken action to overrule modest proposed fracking guidelines. Next week, the House of Representatives plans to hear from one of the state's most vocal sea-level rise deniers, a self-appointed climate "expert" named John Droz.

And the list goes on – Of course the issues described above are just the beginning.

The state's top sex policy enforcer, House Majority leader Paul Stam, will introduce new anti-abortion rights bills and likely figure out some new way to target the LGBT community for discrimination.

Former House Speaker Harold Brubaker is now a powerful lobbyist who will be working, among other things, to reintroduce predatory payday lending into the state.

Reactionary corporate interests will try to further marginalize workers by advancing a plan to enshrine the so-called "right to work" in the state constitution.

And, of course, gun fanatics will look for more ways to insinuate dangerous weapons into every nook and cranny of society. Efforts to even restrict dangerous killing machines will be dismissed as an impingement on "freedom."

Your first chance to speak out

Yes, the 2013 legislative session figures to be a long and difficult one, but it will not get any less painful if all we do is worry and lapse into depression. Any hope that exists to stop or moderate the right's extreme agenda will depend on caring and thinking people -- lots of them -- speaking out loudly and often.

Fortunately, the first important chance to do this takes place soon -- next Saturday, February 9 in downtown Raleigh at the 7th Annual HK on J rally and march. If you care about the issues described above and the future they portend for North Carolina, you owe it to yourself and the people you love to attend.

See ya there.