In October 2011, just a few months after the end of the first General Assembly session controlled by Republicans in more than a hundred years, House Speaker Thom Tillis told a small group of GOP faithful in Mars Hill that one of his goals was to “divide and conquer” people on public assistance.
Tillis, now a U.S. senator, explained that he wanted to get people with disabilities to “look down” at others on public assistance, low-income families whom he deemed unworthy of public support.
It was a revealing moment for the new Republican majority in Raleigh, laying bare one of their goals, to unravel the social safety net in pursuit of their aim to shrink the government they disdain and slash taxes on corporations and the wealthy.
It is part of an agenda they have pursued without pause in the last five years, and the damage to North Carolina has been remarkable and stunning to behold.
Republicans took over control of the General Assembly in the 2010 election in what amounted to a perfect political storm — the national backlash in the midterm election of the first term of the first African-American president, the concurrent and well-funded rise of the Tea Party, and the collapse of the North Carolina Democratic Party.
The investments of tens of millions of dollars in state-level propaganda outfits in the last 20 years by conservative financiers like Raleigh businessman Art Pope played a key role as well.
It was a moment they had been planning for, and it couldn’t have come at a more opportune time — just before the General Assembly would redraw the lines for legislative and congressional districts that would define state elections for the next 10 years.
Once they took over the state House and Senate, the new legislative leaders moved to consolidate and preserve their power, with gerrymandered electoral maps and new voting laws aimed at making it tougher for people who don’t generally support Republicans to vote.
They took over state government completely in 2012 with the election of former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory as governor. McCrory had lost to Democrat Bev Perdue in 2008, but the stars were again aligned for Republicans four years later when Perdue announced shortly before the campaign started that she would not seek reelection. That left Democrats scrambling to find a candidate before settling on Lieutenant Governor Walter Dalton, whom McCrory handily defeated.
Republicans also understood that their gerrymandered districts and many of their most radical attempts to remake the state would face legal challenges. Gathering millions in donations from allied outside political groups, they maintained a majority on the N.C. Supreme Court, where many of the challenges to their agenda would land.
With all three branches of government securely under their control, the ideological shift left few areas of state policy untouched. People who were already struggling have been hurt the most — low-wage workers, single mothers, people of color and immigrants. Vital life supports, such as child care subsidies, pre-K programs, unemployment insurance and food stamps, have been slashed.
And there’s been more than a loss of basic benefits. People living on the margins have been demonized in the last five years too, blamed for their struggles, penalized for their inability to find jobs that don’t exist, and cruelly stereotyped for political gain. The folks now in charge of Raleigh haven’t just made government smaller, they have also made it meaner.
Most of the money they saved from slashing safety net programs hasn’t been reinvested in education or job training or infrastructure. Instead, even as tax revenue has risen as the state recovers from the Great Recession, the savings have been given to corporations and the wealthy in a series of massive tax breaks.
Thanks to the anemic budgets of the last five years, North Carolina now spends almost 6 percent less on state services than in 2008 in inflation-adjusted dollars.
Now the folks in charge are pushing to lock in the woeful recession-era level of public investment by adding arbitrary spending limits to the state constitution in the misnamed Taxpayer Bill of Rights. In Colorado, the only state that has adopted it, it has been a disaster.
Nowhere have the cuts hit harder than in public schools, where rankings in teacher pay and per-pupil funding have spiraled toward the bottom of the 50 states.
Once recognized across the country for its commitment to public education, North Carolina now is making headlines for how much of it is being dismantled, with teachers fleeing to other states because of low salaries and the culture of animosity and disrespect from state leaders.
The meanness is evident here too. The nationally recognized Teaching Fellows program has been abolished, even as the state struggles to recruit bright students into the profession, merely because of its ties to prominent Democrats like former Gov. Jim Hunt.
Low-income kids and their families are the biggest losers in the attacks on public schools, but there are winners in the ideological assault: new for-profit companies that run charter schools, private and religious academies that now receive taxpayer funding and sketchy online institutions that are raking in state dollars.
The new ruling class in Raleigh, while professing a commitment to reduce the scope of government, increased its role in people’s personal lives and health care decisions, interfered with local issues in communities across the state, and pushed to resume executions even as two men were freed from prison, one from death row, after serving for more than 30 years for a murder they did not commit.
They made it harder for some people to vote but easier for many people to get a gun and take it into more places — bars, restaurants, parks and playgrounds. They have systematically rolled back important environmental protections, undeterred by the massive coal ash spill into the Dan River in 2014, the worst environmental disaster in the state’s history.
The radical transformation of North Carolina has prompted a passionate response in protest, as thousands have marched in Raleigh and across the state in the NAACP-led Moral Monday movement.
Most of the state’s papers have editorialized against virtually every piece of the right-wing agenda, and the national media have weighed in too, most famously The New York Times in a 2013 editorial “The Decline of North Carolina,” that lamented the “grotesque damage that a new Republican majority has been doing to a tradition of caring for the least fortunate.”
The protests and biting criticism have galvanized opponents of the new direction, but the ideological crusaders running things in Raleigh seem undaunted. In late October, Gov. McCrory signed bills that rolled back another group of important environmental protections, cut off food stamps for 100,000 families, and made life more difficult for immigrants in the state.
This report, “Altered State: How five years of conservative rule have redefined North Carolina,” is a look at what has happened since political control changed in the 2010 election.
It is impossible to catalogue, much less describe in detail, all the changes; that would take hundreds of pages. Instead, this report is about themes and trends as well the consequences of those policy changes for families and for the vital institutions that for a generation made a North Carolina a relatively progressive Southern state, a leader in education, environmental protections and quality of life.
Five years after taking control of North Carolina’s government, the regime in Raleigh is still dividing and conquering, leaving North Carolina an altered state indeed.
Chris Fitzsimon is the Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch.