It has been four years since Republicans took control of our legislature. They now control all three branches of state government. When campaigning to takeover, the GOP promised to get government out of our way, be fiscally responsible, reduce the size of government, insist on transparency, openness and clean government, push governance closest to the people affected, grow the economy and fix education and healthcare. While not pretending to speak for all, this moderate wants to share his view of the state of our state.
The Republican leadership’s chief achievement has been fiscal responsibility. The worst of The Great Recession was waning when they took charge, but they balanced budgets, in spite of the elimination of large federal grants, without major upheavals. The state budget grew from $19.7 billion to $21.1 billion in the year just concluded, reflecting roughly the growth in population and inflation. They eliminated a $2 billion debt to the federal government for unemployment insurance by cutting arguably generous benefits. They oversaw a reorganization of state government, some of which seemed politically motivated; right now results are inconclusive.
The Republican social agenda held their focus more than solutions to problems like education, healthcare, the economy and transportation. Their legislation has resulted in more lawsuits than at any time we can remember and their won-loss record isn’t great.
To right the economy, the GOP proposed tax reform, which largely involved cutting taxes, especially for the wealthy and businesses. Big lobby groups thwarted efforts for real reform. The state’s unemployment percentage dropped dramatically but it is difficult to determine just how much of a role the tax cuts played in that improvement.
North Carolina’s economy hasn’t improved as quickly as in previous recessionary periods, principally because wages are stagnant and jobs being created are not high-paying positions. The working poor and middle class, who suffered most, saw little relief, especially with the elimination of the Earned Income Tax Credit. Republicans eliminated the Rural Center, defunded the Golden Leaf Foundation, plan to axe the Biotechnology Center and Community Care North Carolina, because they have a Democratic smell rather than because they aren’t working. There have been no major initiatives or programs to spur job creation or infrastructure improvement.
Promises to make government trains run regularly and on time were de-railed. The first year in power, 2011, the Republican controlled legislature passed a state budget 11 days before the start of the fiscal year, the first time that had happened since 1995. Since then budget passage has been 2 days late, then 28, then 36 and we are currently 50 days late and no one knows when a budget will be finalized. We were dismayed at the Democrats’ increased secrecy but Republicans have turned closed-door decision making into an art form. After decades of complaining about gerrymandered legislative and congressional districts GOP leaders redistricted boundaries down to specific streets to favor their candidates. We were never opposed to the election laws in existence and felt the 2013 changes were politically motivated, but aren’t exercised about them and agree with the concept of showing identification when voting.
Since becoming President Pro Tem Phil Berger has presided over a body that appears angry, antagonistic, arrogant and autocratic. Democrats often disagreed, but usually privately. The House and Senate differences are on display for all to see and their lack of respect for the governor and others is disappointing.
Democrats attempted to fix ailing public schools by throwing money at them but the Republican solution is to encourage and fund alternative schools to our state system. They appear opposed to the way our university system is run but haven’t given us specific reasons why and their appointed Board of Governors has done little more than fire the President, again without explanation.
Healthcare has been problematic. Legislators wisely removed the State Health Plan from their own supervision and transferred it (and a huge unfunded liability) to the State Treasurer. Legislative leadership and the Governor wisely deferred on making decisions to form a North Carolina exchange or expand Medicaid until details involving the Affordable Care Act became clearer. Now that ACA is a fact of life they need to develop and initiate a healthcare plan for our state, especially for mental health and Medicaid, perhaps our single biggest need. Just taking Medicaid away from the Department of Health and Human Services feels more like rearranging deck chairs and a personal vendetta than a real solution. After four years of wrangling over Medicaid reform, they appear to be listening more to big-donor insurance company lobbies than to patients and healthcare providers. True, they eliminated budget deficits in Medicaid, but never forget some of the larger shortages were ones they created themselves.
Meanwhile the gap between rural and urban areas and the haves and have-nots grows wider and so far they have failed to address the growing inadequacy and poor condition of public infrastructure.
The current legislature’s penchant for interfering in local government affairs smacks of Big Brother.
In the 2010 election, we heard Republicans speak to problems and the failure of Democrats to fix them. Even with Democratic-drawn districts we elected Republicans to lead. I’m not ready to declare Republican leadership failed or throw the bunch out but there are many unaddressed or broken promises. As Yogi Berra once said, it feels like déjà vu all over again.
Tom Campbell is the executive producer and moderator of N.C. Spin.