State GOP Has Its Work Cut Out For It
This is reprinted with permission from The News & Observer of Raleigh.
The new Republican legislature that took office Wednesday must feel a little like Depression-era North Carolina Gov. O. Max Gardner.
“I lie awake at night wondering how I let my ambitions lead me into the governorship at a time like this,” Gardner said.
The GOP achieved a goal Wednesday that it had sought for generations. And the reward, as House Speaker Thom Tillis put it, is to have laid in its lap “a budget deficit that threatens our ability to fund critical services.”
The projected $3.7 billion budget shortfall presents difficult choices for the legislature — either major and painful cuts in state government or an increase in taxes. And the Republican leaders reiterated their opposition Tuesday to raising taxes or extending the 2009 temporary tax increase.
But while difficult days lie ahead for the Republican lawmakers, they also have an opportunity to inject fresh ideas into running state government, unburdened by old relationships, or tired ways of doing things.
This will be North Carolina’s first Republican legislature since either 1898 or 1876, depending on how you calculate it. The Republicans ruled in 1898 in a coalition government they formed with the Populists. They ruled in the 1860s and in the 1870s during Reconstruction.
The election of a Republican majority will likely mean an ideological rightward turn of the legislature.
“I believe it will mean leadership that favors limited government, free markets and federalism,” Tillis said in his acceptance speech to the House, “leadership that understands that the T-E-A in tea party stands for Taxed Enough Already.”
Under Democrats ...
But the shift may not be as great as some partisans on both sides expect. Though the Republican label is new, a conservative-leaning legislature is not.
Under the leadership of conservative Democrats, North Carolina’s legislature has long been a focal point of the state’s broad conservative streak. This is true, in part, because as a part-time citizen-legislature, its members tend to be very close to the voters.
Examples of its innate conservatism are plentiful.
In 1920, the legislature rejected a constitutional amendment to give women the right to vote. In 1925, the legislature nearly passed a law banning the teaching of evolution. In 1963, the legislature enacted a law banning communists from speaking on state-supported campuses. In 1978, North Carolina became the next to last state in the country to legalize the sale of mixed alcoholic drinks, and in the late 1970s, North Carolina defeated the Equal Rights Amendment for women.
All of this was under Democrats.
For the past two decades, the most powerful Democrat in the legislature, former Sen. Marc Basnight, was a pro-business, anti-abortion restaurant owner who voted for U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. Basnight was progressive on certain issues such as expanding the University of North Carolina system and protecting the environment.
For much of the state’s history, it has been progressive governors, such as Gardner (1929-33), Kerr Scott (1949-53), Terry Sanford (1961-65) and Jim Hunt (1977-85, 1993-2001), who have pushed the legislature to go further than it wanted on spending for roads and education and other projects.
The legislature has also been pushed by forward-looking Republican governors such as Jim Holshouser (1973-77) and Jim Martin (1985-93).
North Carolina should never be confused with New York.
The state’s moderately conservative political climate is one reason that the state has the lowest rate of unionization in the country, why its tort laws (contributory negligence in civil suits) make it among the hardest places in the country to sue businesses. It is also why many outside groups rate the state as business-friendly.
North Carolina’s burdensome tax rate, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Where the State Rates
According to the conservative Washington-based Tax Foundation, North Carolina ranked 20th in state/local tax burden in 2008, the last year such figures were available.
It was right behind Oklahoma, but ahead of Kansas, both red states.
But the Tax Foundation also rated North Carolina as having the 44th best business climate when it came to taxes in 2011 — down from 34th a year before, thanks in large part to the temporary tax hike.
Republican Senate leader Phil Berger spoke for many Republicans in arguing that the legislature must take steps to improve North Carolina’s business environment.
“It is time for a different philosophy in state government, one that will return North Carolina to its rightful place as the Southeast’s leader in job creation, education, transportation and quality of life,” Berger said.
But part of North Carolina’s historic exceptionalism in the South has been the money that has been spent to make North Carolina’s university system, in Tillis’ words, “the envy of the United States,” and to give it a community college system that is “doing yeoman’s work.”
Maintaining North Carolina’s excellence, while keeping down taxes, and balancing the budget, may be one reason why Tillis said the legislature faces “a monumental task.”
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