A fearful and pessimistic vision

By: - April 27, 2011 3:18 pm

Taking stock of the 2011 session at its midpoint

State lawmakers reached two milestones this week. Not only did they begin their fourth month in Raleigh on Tuesday, but House Republicans also released their version of the FY 2012-’13 state budget. With any luck, both developments indicate that we’re about at the midpoint of the 2011 legislative session.

So, what can we make of things so far? What does their performance say about the state’s new legislative leaders? What have they accomplished? Where are they taking us?

First, the good news

The list is short, but in fairness, there are at least a few positive things that should be noted about the new conservative General Assembly.

They’re serious – For the most part, the new Republican leaders of the House and Senate have been serious and relatively disciplined about their work. They’ve had an agenda and tried to stick to it. They seem to be working hard.

They’re true believers – Unlike the diverse, big-tent Democrats who’ve controlled the General Assembly for so long, GOP members are remarkably similar in their views. Sometimes there’s almost a “Stepford Wives” feel to the whole thing, but one must concede that rank and file members are almost always willing to do what their leaders tell them to do.

Overt corruption appears to be at a minimum – In general, few of the Republican leaders give off the impression of people who are “on the make.” That’s not to imply that they aren’t eagerly advancing a harmful raft of bills for corporations and other big money interests who support their campaigns. There’s actually more of this kind of insidious, less-overt corruption than perhaps ever before. In general, though, one doesn’t get the impression of widespread, over-the-top, personal sleaziness.

The rest of the story

Unfortunately, the bad news outweighs the good by about ten or twenty-to-one. In general, the Republican performance during the first three months of the session represents a dark and backward-looking episode in state history. The list of negative and counter-productive substantive bills and absurdly draconian budget cuts is so long that it’s impossible to catalog them all in this report. Here, however, are a few of the most egregious examples:

Cutting taxes at the worst possible time – The central, overriding, inexcusable sin of the new Republican leaders thus far in 2011 has been their pig-headed commitment to cutting taxes at a moment in which state revenues are severely depressed. Under the Republican plan, state taxes in FY 2012 will be more than a $1.6 billion lower than they were in FY 2011. Not only will they permit so-called “temporary” taxes to expire, Republicans will cut taxes on corporate profits even further.

This means that, at the very moment in which state revenues are just beginning to recover from the Great Recession – a moment in which the state has already inflicted all kinds of painful cuts to public education, mental health, health care for the poor, justice and public safety, the environment and many more areas – Republican leaders will “double down” by decimating an array of already inadequate structures and services.

The saddest part of this story, of course, is that lawmakers could avoid this problem by simply leaving taxes where they are now – an act that the public supports by overwhelming margins and that most people would scarcely notice.

A cynical and deceptive assault on core services – Analysts are just beginning to assess the damage that would be inflicted on essential state services if the budget released late last night is actually enacted into law. On the whole, however, the picture appears remarkably bleak. Not only does the budget proposal cut thousands of state jobs held by good people providing essential services in education, mental health, justice and public safety, environmental protection and other core areas, it often does so in a deceptive and cynical fashion.

At the heart of the problem here is the matter of “discretionary cuts.” Rather than specifying every teacher or health care provider whose job would be eliminated, the budget simply appropriates less money to a host of general categories and then cravenly directs the people charged with the task of providing the services to “figure out a way.”

It’s reminiscent of the Exodus story in which Pharaoh commands the Israelites to make bricks without straw – a self-evidently ridiculous and mean-spirited directive. Unfortunately, the lack of “bricks” in the case of this modern edict will be felt in myriad ways that will diminish the quality of life for millions of average people.

An extreme and ideological agenda – If anything, Republican priorities apart from budget and tax matters have been even more regressive and dangerous to the common good. The list of bad ideas is as long as your arm and includes:

There are many, many other examples.

Making sense of this agenda

What explains all of this? How does a serious, seemingly sincere and mostly non-corrupt group of people choose such a regressive path?

While the answer varies from lawmaker to lawmaker, for most, it comes down to a matter of vision (or lack thereof). In the insular vision of a frightening proportion of modern conservatives, the world is a hard and scary place best viewed through the lens of television set (frequently FOX News) in which rapid change is a threat. These people can’t imagine that humans can successfully negotiate the problems that confront them through cooperative, intentional, public problem-solving—especially when that involves people who are perceived as “different.”

And shared sacrifice? Forget about it.

Better, in this vision, to fall back on the “known” or the “sure thing” – the money or the gun in one’s pocket, the familiar ethnic group with which one has always associated, the corporate oligarchs and symbols that are familiar (and that control the media that dominates modern communication). Better to wall oneself off into one’s own (frequently gated) community and demand that others do likewise and “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” than risk the kinds of common good solutions that might force us to walk outside and actually engage with our neighbors – much less trust them.

Going forward

So what does this mean for the months ahead? At this point, the picture does not seem likely to grow appreciably brighter anytime very soon. The best near-term hope for North Carolina appears to be a political standoff followed by some measure of compromise between the General Assembly and the Governor that limits the impact many of the worst ideas. Let’s hope this is possible.

In the long run, however, the real solution lies with combating the fear and affirmatively advancing a much more hopeful vision of our democracy.

Fortunately, we know this is possible. Let’s get to work.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors and voices regular commentaries, and hosts the 'News & Views' weekly radio show/podcast.