The battle lines become clear

By: - June 3, 2011 4:46 pm

Governor Perdue and average North Carolinians vs. conservative ideologues and the moneyed interests

Events are moving fast in Raleigh these days. Tired of waiting for Republicans running the General Assembly to pass legislation that would restore unemployment benefits to tens of thousands of deserving workers and their families, Governor Beverly Perdue, in effect, said, “the hell with it” today and issued an executive order to do what legislative leaders would not. It could lead to a fascinating and illuminating conflict if the GOP attempts to challenge her action and affirmatively stop the payment of federally-funded benefits to deserving people.

Here’s part of the statement she issued:

“For weeks, I have been trying to work with the Republican legislative leaders to get them to do the right thing: send me a clean bill to extend the unemployment benefits for 47,000 North Carolinians who have lost their jobs. But instead of acting responsibly on this matter, the Republican legislature has repeatedly refused to send me such a bill. Instead, they have persistently attempted to use our unemployed workers as hostages by tying the extension of their benefits to my acceptance of budget bills that would inflict severe and unnecessary cuts to our schools and other essential programs.

Meanwhile, thousands of North Carolina families are running out of money and options. I hear from them all over the state. They visit my website and Facebook page to beg for help….

Every week we deny these benefits is another week that we keep $11 million of federal funds from flowing into our economy. This money would pay for things like groceries, rent and clothing and help small businesses who sell these items or collect that rent.

North Carolina cannot wait any longer for the legislature to do what they should have done more than a month ago. Today, I am issuing an executive order extending federal unemployment benefits to these 47,000 North Carolinians. Republican leaders in the General Assembly have been unwilling to take the necessary steps to extend these benefits, and no doubt they will attempt to interfere with this action. But I, for one, believe these people are entitled to and need these federal funds, and the Republican-controlled legislature needs to stop using the unemployed as pawns.”

Meanwhile, the conflict over the regressive state budget proposal got ratcheted up significantly as Democratic leaders, local officials and a large and growing coalition of advocacy groups brought more and more of the proposal’s dreadful provisions to light. Perdue’s chief education spokesperson Bill Harrison patiently explained at a press conference how the budget proposal would, if enacted, cause devastating harm to classrooms throughout the state. Harrison said the proposal was full of “smoke and mirrors.”

Both of these developments came on the heels of Thursday’s hottest debate – the fight over whether the state should raise interest rates on vulnerable consumers who are forced to patronize storefront loan companies. After the bill squeaked through the House last night over the strong objections of North Carolina-based military leaders, Governor Perdue issued a strong statement of condemnation. 

“The General Assembly should listen to the top leaders of the Pentagon and the leadership of our North Carolina military bases and vote against the current version of House Bill 810. This legislation will expose our men and women in uniform and their families to high cost financial obligations and potentially predatory lending practices.”

A pattern emerges

The bottom line all of this is that after months in which the combination of somewhat muted Republican rhetoric and hesitance (patience?) from the Governor had combined to keep things relatively and surprisingly calm in the capital city, the gloves are finally coming off.

With less than a month to go in the current fiscal year and a veritable mad scramble to pass all sorts of backwards-looking bills overtaking the General Assembly, it is now crystal clear that there are two main sides in the state policy debate: Governor Perdue and average North Carolinians vs. conservative ideologues and the moneyed interests.

Think about the issues listed above.

On unemployment insurance – Try as they might to attack the Governor with the silly, inside-the-beltline claim that her action on unemployment insurance benefits indicated “incompetence” because she could have done it weeks ago (when she was trying to get them to do their jobs!), the Republicans have clearly been maneuvered into a difficult political position.

Whereas the Governor has aligned herself with average people (i.e. the unemployed and the overwhelming majority of voters, who support extension of benefits), legislative Republicans have aligned themselves with those who do not want to extend benefits (i.e. a handful of market fundamentalist ideologues and…and…well, nobody that’s willing to admit it). Even the conservative business community (which generally hates unemployment insurance and is trying to ruin the program in another bill) hasn’t had the courage to speak up against workers on this issue.

On education cuts – Again, the lines are clear. On one side stands the Governor along with teachers, parents, and local officials of both parties throughout the state who understand the devastating impact of slashing education. On the other side stands fundamentalist ideologues, who don’t even believe in public education in the first place and…and…well, nobody that’s willing to admit it. Other than partisan attack groups like the ironically-named Americans for Prosperity, there has been zero organized support for slashing education. Again, even conservative business leaders know better and have, if anything stood with the Governor.

On raising consumer loan rates – Once again, the Governor has seized the political high ground. While she stands with consumer groups, senior citizens, military leaders and 84% of voters, her opponents consist of a combination of predatory, mostly out-of-state loan companies and…and…, well, Americans for Prosperity.

Where things go from here

Though encouraging, none of these developments guarantees a near-term policy victory for the Governor and her allies. The Republicans have large majorities in both houses and may have succeeded in buying off enough conservative House Democrats to override a Perdue budget veto.

Still, when it comes to the longer-term battle for the hearts and minds of North Carolinians, it’s increasingly clear that Perdue has finally struck upon a winning political strategy. At long last, she seems to have finally figured out the fact that there’s no peace to be made with the reactionaries running the General Assembly.

Meanwhile, though unrepentant, her opponents seem to be feeling the heat. After months of confident and deliberate action to pass a steady stream of legislation, legislative Republicans lurched suddenly into overdrive this week, scurrying to ram through dozens of controversial bills and promising a June 17 adjournment. It almost resembled the behavior of looters who realized that police had been alerted to their presence.

Will conservatives figure out a way to get out of the political hole they’ve dug for themselves? Given the way the battle lines are shaping up, it’s likely to be a tough and uphill fight.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.