A government that abuses its authority, tramples the people's right to be self-governing and acts for corrupt ends instead of the public good is tyranny.
That's what the signers of the Declaration of Independence, in 1776, charged England with for its misrule of the American colonies. That also describes the Republican Party's reign in North Carolina since taking control of state government.
There's a crisis growing in Raleigh as our legislators obstruct local government and seize power for themselves to promote favored corporate interests and campaign contributors.
It's time to fight for fundamental principles.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident," the Declaration of Independence states, that all people are endowed with "certain unalienable Rights." Governments are created "to secure these rights ... deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
The fact is, in every corner of the General Assembly, Republicans are acting on a belief that they can do no wrong. Whatever bills they pass must be lawful because, after all, the General Assembly has the power to say what the law is—just as King George did.
Are they right? For instance, can they:
- Overturn a local election because the candidates who won were Democrats? That's the objective of the Republican-sponsored bill to redraw school board election districts in Wake County. It would extend the terms of the elected Republican board members while chopping 17 months from the elected Democrats' terms.
- Tear up state contracts they don't like? The City of Raleigh signed a long-term lease with the state for the 325-acre Dorothea Dix Hospital tract, intending to make it into a Central Park for Raleigh. The Republicans plan to toss it out.
- Fire duly appointed members of executive branch agencies? Members named by past governors to terms on key boards and commissions—the state Utilities Commission, for example, and the Environmental Management Commission—would be dismissed early so the Republicans can name their cronies. The new appointees are certain to favor Duke Energy, the giant electric monopoly and former employer of Gov. Pat McCrory, and be hostile to environmental rules on business.
- Refuse to enforce laws while campaign contributors keep making a buck on illegal activities? That's what's happening with gambling parlors that feature Internet slot machines. In December, the state Supreme Court upheld the law banning Internet sweepstakes gaming. But the Division of Alcohol Law Enforcement, the arm of the state Department of Public Safety tasked with enforcing gambling laws, isn't cracking down on them. Why? The fact that Chase Burns, an Oklahoma man whose company sells the machines, has contributed $235,000 to North Carolina political campaigns, the lion's share of it to Republicans, might be a clue. Democracy North Carolina counted up the booty after Burns was indicted in Florida for allegedly operating illegal gambling operations disguised as a charity for veterans. He and his wife were arrested in Oklahoma on charges including racketeering and conspiracy.
And that's just the top of a long list of Republican bills intended to rob municipalities of their airports; prohibit local governments from annexing land or require them to de-annex land; limit building inspections; and, in one egregious case opposed by every mayor in Wake County, stop local governments from using zoning to maintain neighborhood quality and keep slum housing out of older residential neighborhoods.
Whatever happened to the Republicans' belief in government closest to the people? What happened is, the homebuilders lobby wants the chance to build cheaper houses. And the Republicans are happy to give it to them and accept their campaign contributions in return.
So are the Republicans right that they can do no wrong, that their powers are unlimited? Of course, not. They are limited, in the first place, by provisions of the state and federal constitutions that safeguard our liberties against government abuse and separate the executive and judicial powers from legislative intrusion. True, the North Carolina Constitution is based on the idea that the people's representatives—legislators elected by the people—will know what's best for the state and make laws accordingly. They can create local governments. They can abolish them.
Still, our constitution begins, like the Declaration of Independence, with the overriding principle that the power to govern is vested in the people, not in their legislators, "and is instituted solely for the good of the whole."
And surely the people, having elected someone to local office, have a right to expect that person to be safe from arbitrary removal by the General Assembly.
The second reason is a practical one. If the law is whatever the politicians in office say it is, and can be swept aside whenever other politicians are elected, it loses all legitimacy. That's why good government is incremental and respectful of what came before rather than, as the Republicans are wont to do, swinging a wrecking ball at it.
Aristotle called this concept "the rule of law." "A government of laws, not of men," John Adams termed it as he helped write the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution.
Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, warned that even in a republic, government may sometimes degenerate into "wolves over sheep"—with rapacious legislators as the wolves and the rest of us sheep.
That's why Jefferson added, in a famous letter to James Madison, "I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing."
Like Jefferson, I hold that it's time for rebellion. Protests, pickets, lawsuits, civil disobedience. Because it's early days still, and if left to their devices, the Republicans will only get worse. Wait until the General Assembly starts handing over the public schools to private companies—using taxpayer-funded vouchers and charters.
The next election is in 2014. That's when a little rebellion should turn into revolt.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Abuse of power."