We're roughly halfway through the 2011 General Assembly, according to the timetable set by its Republican leaders, and the place is thick with legislation that is either long-overdue (if your political hero is Ronald Reagan) or, as one progressive Democrat put it, "Another day, another outrage."
More charter schools, more guns, more impediments to voting or discrimination against gays, if it's a right-wing cause frustrated for years by the formerly dominant Democrats, there's an app for it—and bills—coming from the Republicans who now control the House and the Senate.
The spectacle of controversial bills seems to be alienating a lot of swing voters, if a recent survey by Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh firm headed by Democrat Dean Debnam, is accurate. Republicans are viewed favorably by just 38 percent of voters in the state, PPP analyst Tom Jensen says, with 39 percent unfavorable. The key finding, Jensen adds, is that independent voters favored Republican candidates by a 20 percent margin in the November elections, but by late March had turned against the GOP by 37–26 percent.
The reason, Jensen says, is that Republicans "may be overreaching a little bit" with headline-grabbing proposals like the one to let concealed handgun permit holders carry their weapons in parks and restaurants that serve alcohol (HB 111). That's just good gun rights to conservatives. But only 23 percent of all votes think it's a good idea, PPP found.
Overdue or outrageous, however, most of the GOP's pet legislation (including the gun bill) is stalled short of enactment and is about to be pushed to the sidelines while the Republicans focus on the most outrageous—or overdue—bill of all: their proposed 2011–12 budget.
It's certain to contain deep cuts in spending on social services and public schools, colleges and universities—cuts the Republicans must defend to the public if they really mean to close a $2 billion-plus budget hole without a tax increase.
The GOP budget plan is already a week late, House Speaker Thom Tillis acknowledged Tuesday morning at a press conference with Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger. Still, Tillis expected it to be unveiled later the same day, considered by House committees this week and passed by the House next week. The goal is for the General Assembly to be done with the budget and to put it on Gov. Bev Perdue's desk by June 1.
The budget and redistricting—of congressional and legislative election districts—are the important issues now, Tillis added. Until these jobs are finished, other bills won't be "first on the agenda—whether we support them or not."
Taken as a whole, the Republican agenda thus far is a mix of short-term program cuts, longer-term ideas for dismantling the public sector, sops to corporate backers and series of bills aimed at putting minority groups down.
Short-term: Cut the budget
Perdue's proposed budget of $19.9 billion was itself a conservative document, cutting K–12, community college and UNC System budgets by between 4 and 6 percent and increasing tuitions while also proposing to reduce corporate income taxes by some $300 million a year (by a rate cut from 6.9 percent to 4.9 percent). Social services, transportation and corrections, the other major spending categories, took similarly deep cuts.
But Perdue's budget included more than $800 million in revenues from her three-quarter-of-a-cent increase in sales tax. (A temporary 1-cent sales tax hike and 2 percent income-tax surcharge on the highest-earning individuals are both set to expire June 30.) Tillis said the GOP budget will cut corporate taxes the same as Perdue's, cut taxes more for small business owners—and no sales tax or income-tax surcharges. So that's another $1 billion or so for the Republicans to cut, and since education budgets are 60 percent of state spending, their knives will be aimed at the schools.
Long-term: Shrink the schools
Berger, the Senate leader, objected Tuesday to any implication that Republicans were "reducing the money to education because that's what we want to do." The state faces a $2.5 billion budget shortfall Berger said, so the task is to cut spending, but "minimize negative outcomes."
Tillis, though, offered a different take. School spending has increased over the years, he said, but school results are worse. Which leads "us"—Republicans—to question whether the traditional public schools are capable of spending their money efficiently, he added, especially given all the state-mandated standards that govern them. Tillis wondered, for example, whether a school should be allowed to experiment with eight students in one second-grade class, say, and 20 in another.
Either way, traditional schools get less money. What's more, many Republican legislators are at odds with the whole idea of traditional public schools—of a free, K–12 system, that is, which enrolls most school-age children and offers them roughly the same educational opportunities.
That's been clear throughout the debate over charter schools, with Republicans voting on party lines for a bill to ditch the "cap" of 100 such schools (SB 8) and open the gates to many more with few restrictions about who they must enroll. The bill, different versions of which have passed the House and Senate, infuriates Democrats, especially African-American Democrats like Rep. Mickey Michaux of Durham, who denounced it Monday night on the House floor as "a pure racist move."
Democrats believe that if charters are permitted to recruit just the "gifted and talented" students, for example—as the GOP bill would allow—and are not required to have diverse student bodies or provide transportation to kids who live miles away, the upshot will be a proliferation of schools that are private in nature but receive public funds (supplemented by parents' contributions).
Such schools will be cheaper to operate than the traditional public schools while "creaming" the better students from them, they argue; the traditional schools will see their support dwindle and their budgets cut, even as they're left to educate heavily low-income and special-needs student populations. "These schools will become more and more segregated," an angry Michaux declared. "Your wish of doing away with the traditional public schools will come true."
In fact, House Majority Leader Paul Stam of Apex describes it as his "dream" that every public school would be a charter school, free of "stultifying, education-killing regulations." Stam is also the sponsor of legislation to offer $2,500 tax vouchers to parents who either homeschool or send their kids to private or parochial schools. Either option, Stam says, is cheaper than a traditional public school, which would save the taxpayers money.
Long-term: Raise taxes on the poor
The state's Earned Income Tax Credit is a jobs subsidy for low-income workers, supplementing the federal EITC. Both are refundable, which means that workers collect them even if the credit exceeds the amount of tax they owe. It's not a huge of money: The state credit cost about $92 million last year for 800,000 low-income workers—averaging a little over $100 each.
Technically, that might not violate the party's pledge to avoid tax increases. But as a practical matter, poor folks' taxes would be increased.
Ironically, Stam, who says he's against refundable tax credits in principle, supports offering his private-school vouchers in the form of a $2,500 tax credit—a refundable tax credit (HB 41).
For years, Republicans ripped Democratic leaders in the General Assembly for creating a "pay to play" system that favored business interests who contributed money to Democratic candidates.
Guess what? This year, Republican sponsors are pushing legislation sought by the billboard industry (SB 183), cable television operators (HB 129) and health-care and auto insurance companies—all of them big campaign contributors. The billboard industry, for example, wants more latitude to cut trees down along state roads and to convert old billboards to new electronic ones—and if local ordinances like the ones in Durham and Raleigh said no, get rid of them. GOP bills in both houses would give it to them. But public opposition is building.
Long a staple of Republican platforms, the idea of an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriages or civil unions is teed up in bills introduced in both houses (HB 777, SB 106). (Gov. Perdue can't stop them; the governor has no power to veto a proposed amendment.)
No hurry, though: The goal is to put the question before the voters in 2012.
Republicans are also intent on passing legislation that would require voters to bring a photo ID to the polls with them (HB 351, SB 352). The stated idea is to stamp out voter fraud. Because voter fraud of this kind is virtually non-existent, however (and because no such requirement would attach to absentee ballots sent by mail), opponents suspect that the real motive is to let GOP operatives slow the voting down in targeted precincts, especially in African-American communities.
Whatever the real motive, African-Americans can be forgiven if they see this as just the latest in a long history of "voter suppression" efforts aimed at blacks by the GOP.