Lawmakers try to have it both ways

By: - July 10, 2014 6:00 am


Budget conferees change their rhetoric on the role of government, but not the underlying policies that undermine it

Those who attended or watched online yesterday as conferees debated next steps in resolving the stalemate between the House and the Senate over North Carolina’s FY 2015 state budget must have felt at times as if they had stepped into some kind of time/space warp. Surely these weren’t members of the 2014 North Carolina General Assembly holding forth on the state’s inexcusable underinvestment in public education and the critical importance of providing high quality, publicly-funded health insurance to people in need.

Heck, some of the rhetoric was even downright progressive and inspiring. One could almost feel the inhabitants of the local right-wing think tanks squirming uneasily in their seats as Senators and Representatives tried their best to outdo each other in professing their dedication to preserving and enhancing the core structures and services of government. In instance after instance, central tenets and talking points of conservative, market fundamentalist orthodoxy were tossed overboard like so much deadweight from a sinking ship.

There was Senator Jerry Tillman – a man who previously praised Strom Thurmond on the Senate floor this session and who usually does his utmost to sound like a cranky Tea Partier – passionately defending the Senate’s plan to raise teacher salaries by 11% so that North Carolina could rapidly return to the national average.

And then there was the Senate’s chief conservative enforcer, Rules Committee chairman Tom Apodaca, complaining that “we have balanced our budgets on the backs of K-12 and teachers for the last 30 years.”

It was as if Senators had gotten their talking points from former Governor Jim Hunt.

Perhaps even more amazingly, there was House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Nelson Dollar refuting the criticism of his fellow Wake County delegation member, Senator Neal Hunt that rapid expansion of “welfare” spending is the chief problem that’s holding back the state budget:

I don’t see any big welfare line item in this budget. Medicaid spends billions on mental health, pregnant women, people who have diabetes, or cancer or heart disease. I don’t see those things as welfare. I see those as treating our fellow 1.6, 1.7 million citizens of our state in a very humane way….Do we help those who cannot help themselves?”

Who has Dollar been listening to, Pope Francis?

An election year conversion?

By all indications, the driving force behind the conservative legislature’s newly-discovered love for public education and health care is the recognition amongst its leaders that they’re getting nowhere politically with their wars on public schools and the poor. For all of its imperfections and all of the gripes that all parents of schoolchildren have, public education remains overwhelmingly popular amongst voters. Those voters flatly reject the notion so long advanced by the John Locke Foundation, Pope-Civitas Institute and others on the ideological right that North Carolina schools are more-than-adequately funded and teachers generously paid.

To the contrary, voters understand that schools and teachers are suffering mightily and are demanding action. Any conservative politician who ignores this reality – even true believers who do so in the service of deep commitment to ideology – do so at their own electoral risk.

Add to this hard political reality the danger posed by the Senate’s tin-eared plan to ax thousands of “aged, blind and disabled” citizens from the Medicaid rolls (Kay Hagan’s media people are undoubtedly chomping at the bit to produce an attack ad against Thom Tillis on that one) and it’s not hard to understand what motivates speeches like Rep. Dollar’s.

Of course, the fact that giant healthcare concerns have dispatched fleets of lobbyists and stand poised to dispense mountains of campaign cash in order to abet their design of privatizing Medicaid and capturing a bigger slice of the action probably doesn’t hurt either when it comes to inspiring conservative politicians to take generous stances toward publicly-funded healthcare.

The elephant in the room

As refreshing and encouraging as it is, however, to hear influential North Carolina politicians talk about the importance of raising teacher salaries to the national average and helping the poor, one should not lose sight of the truck-sized hole in the logic and rhetoric emanating from Jones Street. Most notable in this regard is the failure of legislative leaders to acknowledge the devastating impact of the unnecessary and destructive tax cuts they enacted last year.

According to the best and most recent estimates, the 2013 tax cuts – which overwhelmingly favor the state’s most wealthy taxpayers – are costing the state more than $500 million in foregone revenue in the fiscal year that began last week. Add to this the fact that the cuts have caused a downward revision of revenue projections by another $190 million and the gap may well balloon to more than $700 million.

Even if lawmakers left these cuts in place, however, and merely stopped the implementation of a yet another round of tax cuts scheduled to take effect next January, the state would still realize $300 million in additional revenue in calendar year 2015 – more than enough to make a significant dent in the education shortfall and solve innumerable problems in the current negotiations.

Unfortunately, revenue talk has been completely absent from the budget negotiations. Despite the simplicity and overwhelming popularity amongst voters of raising taxes on the wealthy, legislative leaders will brook no compromise in this realm – not even a temporary delay in the implementation of a new and wholly unnecessary round of rate cuts.

Going forward

Ultimately, lawmakers’ stubborn refusal to do the obvious and correct thing on taxes continues to leave them in a difficult political pickle.

For House Speaker Tillis, whose actions on the budget must of necessity be filtered through the lens of his listing U.S. Senate campaign, the failure to reach an agreement in timely fashion is an obvious and significant millstone. Each week he remains mired in the bickering of Raleigh is another week away from the campaign trail.

Meanwhile, Senate leader Phil Berger’s hard right stance continues to lose him P.R. battles — perhaps most notably, yesterday’s embarrassing Senate walkout/temper tantrum in response to Tillis and Dollar’s decision to bring in school superintendents and teachers before the budget conference committee to testify on the impact of slashing teacher assistants. Whatever the official rules of conference committee meetings that the House action may have technically breached, walking out of a public meeting on hardworking educators was a silly political blunder.

In most modern states, such a situation would provide the Governor – especially one of the same political party as the legislative leadership – to bang some heads together and force a deal that puts pragmatic solutions ahead of ideology. Unfortunately for all involved in the legislative drama and North Carolina itself, neither Pat McCrory (nor even budget director/political financier/all-purpose conservative patron Art Pope) seems to have the inclination or the ability to pull off such a feat in the present environment.

For now, even as legislators profess a rediscovered love of government services, political gamesmanship and egos are taking center stage on Jones Street at the expense of policy solutions that could actually turn the new rhetoric into reality.

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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.