This morning, in the mostly nondescript sanctuary of the Greenwood Forest Baptist Church in Cary, under wood-panel ceilings and in stiff, unforgiving pews, a hundred or so people (I’m extraordinarily bad at estimating crowd counts)—mostly white, mostly older, though not exclusively—gathered for the opening service of the NC Council of Churches’ annual legislative seminar, a briefing of sorts for the religiously progressive, featuring all the major food groups of the liberal diet (taxes, education, immigration, the environment, etc.) plus an award for WRAL anchor/local institution David Crabtree, an Episcopalian deacon and humanitarian. In the pulpit was the Rev. Dr. David Forbes, dean of the Shaw University Divinity School and longtime civil rights activist
, a man whose soaring voice can fill a half-empty room and effectively rouse an almost-slumbering journalist seated somewhere in the back.
“These are times of retreat, of incivility,” he thundered. “These are times when the hard-fought effort for the universal franchise for all Americans is in doubt. I don’t believe it. If I wasn’t in church, I’d say dammit
His sermon—part disquisition on Adam and Eve, part excoriation of Jones Street—set the tone for the day. At the hourlong work sessions that followed participants heard from activists, policy wonks and the like; there were sessions on the state budget, immigration, the environment, labor, LGBTQ rights, schools, voting rights, Medicaid and more. I was attended two (and then lunch) before I had to get back to the office: one on the state budget, and one on the ongoing movement to privatize North Carolina’s public schools. (The were four or five sessions every hour, so it was impossible to check out them all.)
At the first, policy analysts from the Budget & Tax Center—one of whom I interviewed on this blog not so long ago
—laid out the looming consequences of the Legislature’s 2013 tax cuts, most of which, if you’ve been paying close attention to the doings of the General Assembly (or regularly reading the publication for which I work), won’t be anything new, but nonetheless congealed into a disheartening picture of legislators on the one hand trying to starve the government beast and on the other pretending that this is not a self-inflicted wound, or maybe if it is a self-inflicted wound it is something that can be effectively treated with more tax cuts.
“The past couple of years the presentation we give has been bleak news,” said BTC policy analyst Cedric Johnson.
The gist is that, by flattening individual income tax rates and cutting corporate income taxes, lawmakers did two things: 1) They shifted the tax burden from corporations and the wealthy to the poor (“Those making $84,000 or less,” Johnson said, “they saw their taxes increase under this plan”); and 2) created a budget hole that may total nearly $1 billion, depending on how revenues come in, which will likely mean drawing down reserve funds and, if that doesn’t do the trick, more and deeper cuts to state services.
Despite being in a hole, it’s entirely possible that Senate Republicans will try to keep digging. Meet Senate Bill 526, titled the “Job Creation and Tax Relief Act of 2015
,” because words don’t mean things anymore. In short, it would starve state government of $1.4 billion by lowering the income and corporate tax rates further, which, Johnson told us, could open the door to an expansion of the regressive sales tax to fill that gap. That, or more spending cuts. Pick your poison.
“The state budget is a moral document,” fellow policy analyst Tazra Mitchell added. And she’s right. Budgets are about what we prioritize, about what we deem important. Is it making sure kids in public schools have textbooks and supplies, or that the UNC system remains a state jewel? Ensuring that our poor have access to decent health care? Making sure some rich bastard can light his cigar with hundred-dollar bills? All of these are moral choices.
Lawmakers have made theirs. And throughout the day, that was a source of both consternation and righteous indignation.
Later, for instance, in the workshop on school privatization—fun fact: North Carolina’s religious schools, even if they receive government money via
opportunity scholarships, do not have to follow regulation one, not what they teach, not how many days a week they teach, not whether their teachers are certified or can pass a background check or speak in complete sentences, nothing; better yet, Paul Stam and company want to expand the voucher program by 400 percent
, because why not—Burton Craig, the attorney challenging the voucher program before the NC Supreme Court, called vouchers “an enormous threat to our public school system. It’s the biggest existential threat, I believe, to the public school system.” (He expects the Supreme Court to issue its ruling in a month or so.)
This prompted a series of questions about the pro-voucher movement’s motives, whether it was to destroy public schools outright, or maybe, and most generously, a misguided attempt to help kids escape bad situations. Also, how is it possible the court would even consider overlooking the bit in the state constitution
(Article 9, Section 6, to be exact) that says tax money should be “faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools”?
(“It’s possible we are going to lose this,” Craig said, “but they are going to have to do some mighty big contortions to get around that language.”)
Which brings us back to Rev. Forbes and that opening service. “Getting ready for this session was most difficult for me,” he said. “… These are times that confound me.”
“The effort,” he later added, “is being made to turn the clock back”—on voting rights, on poverty, on health care (“Today there are 2 or 3,000 people who are dead because of decision made on Jones Street,” he said, referring to the Legislature’s refusal to extend Medicaid). And the reality of it is, they can protest all they want, they can castigate and shame all they want, but right now, the Legislature doesn’t seem very interested in what they have to say.
And so they turn their gaze skyward. The concluding prayer, which the audience recited as a group, but could just as easily be seen as an indictment of the General Assembly:
O God, open our eyes so that we may see the needs of others; open our ears so that we have hear their cries; open our hearts that we may feel their anguish and their joy; let us defend the oppressed, the poor, the powerless, without fear of the anger and might of the powerful.