Addressing progressive concerns

Addressing progressive concerns

- in Weekly Briefing

What Governor-elect Perdue needs to do to quell the concerns of her political base

It's no secret that Governor-elect Bev Perdue is a figure who generates limited passion amongst progressive North Carolinians. As a consummate political insider, she has been a climber who has worked hand-in-glove with the segments of the state's conservative business establishment for decades while often holding progressive advocates and their causes at arm's length.

And while she has associated herself with some important progressive movements at times through the years – education reform, access to health care, combating domestic violence and women's issues generally – such associations almost always seemed as if they were the result of a political calculus as much as any deep commitment to the causes themselves. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to name a single progressive cause for which Perdue has waged a public and principled losing battle in recent memory. Not surprisingly, her agenda as a gubernatorial candidate seemed designed to be unmistakably middle-of-the-road and so as not to rock the boat.

Still, Perdue is a strong and skilled political figure who owes her election to a core of progressive voters – a high percentage of whom were clearly drawn to the polls by the inspirational and visionary candidacy of President-elect Barack Obama. She knows these are not ordinary times. She is also smart enough to know that it simply won't do for her adopt the traditional "go along, get along" approach favored by her former colleagues in the state Senate.

To establish herself as a strong and effective Governor with real capacity to drive the state's policy agenda for the next four (and maybe eight) years, Perdue must temper her identity as a back-scratching insider and embrace a new one in which her formidable political drive is married to important issues rather than personal ambition. To do this, it is critical that the Governor-elect get her administration off to a fast, forward-looking start by focusing in on a few key issues and assertively advancing "can do" solutions.

Here are three key areas that are particularly ripe for swift, progressive action:

Coping with the state budget shortfall

Most analysts expect the current economic downturn to generate a sizable budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year budget – as much as $1.6 billion. When combined with what it will really take just to maintain current service levels in Fiscal Year 2010, state lawmakers could easily confront a hole of more than $2 billion or 10% of the entire budget.

While Governor Easley has already imposed significant across-the-board cuts in the current year in an attempt to avoid a serious and immediate crisis, the new Governor will need to do much more than cut. This is not a time in which North Carolinians are expecting their elected officials to usher in a new era of fewer or rationed public services.

So what can/should she do? First of all, the Governor-elect must lobby aggressively for federal assistance. Most analysts expect some version of the impending national stimulus package to feature aid to the states – both to close budget shortfalls and to jumpstart job-creating infrastructure spending. The new North Carolina Governor should do all within her power to win as much federal aid as possible – to keep essential services like education,  Medicaid and unemployment insurance fully functional and to put people to work on infrastructure. Her efforts could prove especially important with conservative Democratic congressman like Mike McIntyre, Bob Etheridge and Heath Shuler.

In this latter area, Perdue should do all within her power to direct those dollars toward a progressive, "green" infrastructure agenda. This means prioritizing the repair of existing bridges and highways and the aggressive expansion of public transportation while eschewing the use of any new federal dollars for yet another round of unsustainable highway sprawl.

The second obvious and essential budget initiative on the Perdue gubernatorial agenda must be the progressive prioritization of budget cuts. In a time of high unemployment and suffering, it is simply unacceptable to put politics or the well-connected ahead of people in need. As such, Perdue must find the courage to adopt progressive sentencing reforms (long ago endorsed by prosecutors) that will ease the state's expensive and unsustainable prisons budget and cut back on costly and unproven subsidies to big business. In contrast, essential safety net services should be spared and even expanded.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the new Governor must take advantage of the current budget challenges to breathe new life into the cause of comprehensive, progressive tax reform. The state simply must get beyond its 1930's era revenue system in order to close impending shortfalls and build a less volatile system that will more effectively weather future economic downturns. 

Governor-elect Perdue should quickly acknowledge this fact and endorse a plan that would, among other things:

  • Expand the sales tax base to cover numerous untaxed services while lowering and regularizing the many, widely varying rates;
  • Eliminate business tax loopholes through the adoption of tactics like "combined reporting" that prevent corporations from sheltering income out of state;
  • Explore the establishment of additional income tax brackets to increase fairness; and
  • Assure that local property taxes are adequate to meet local service demands.

Assure health insurance for every child in the state

A second overarching area in which the Governor-elect can send a strong early signal is in the area of health care. As one of the few substantive areas in which the Perdue campaign charted a strong and progressive course from the "get go," this is an area in which she is well-positioned to claim a mandate from voters to act, and act quickly.

In this regard, the most obvious first step is to quickly propose and enact legislation that would assure guaranteed affordable health insurance coverage for every child in the state. Especially in light of budget constraints and the expectation that the "big fix" must start in Washington (and that new federal health care dollars are likely to be freed up) expansion of children's health care is a discreet and affordable step that could be accomplished in relatively short order.  

Make reform promises a reality

The third overarching area in which Bev Perdue can make an immediate and strong statement to her progressive electoral base is in the area of political reform. During her campaign, the Governor-elect promised to open the windows of state government and "let the sunshine in." As someone who seems to have always been more comfortable (or, at least as comfortable) with the traditional ways of crafting policy, political reform offers a perfect opportunity for a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

To this end, the Governor-elect would do well to take the following near term steps:

  1. Commence a policy of weekly news conferences.
  2. Appoint a reform-minded "non-usual suspect" to head the Department of Transportation and demand that he or she produce a plan for real reform and modernization within 60 days.
  3. Endorse the package of policy proposals put forth by the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform.
  4. Direct the Department of Administration to develop an easily searchable, publicly available database that would document every state contract with a private vendor above some specified minimum size.

In addition, the Governor-elect should send a strong early signal that she intends to continue and build upon Governor Easley's impressive record in the area of consumer protection. This will mean stating plainly and clearly that she will veto any legislation that attempts to roll back any of the state's highly successful anti-predatory lending laws and that she endorses the push for new ways to protect average citizens from irresponsible behavior by large corporations.

Going forward

Like a lot of politicians who finally realize their electoral dreams, Govern-elect Perdue has reached the "now what?" moment in her political career – the point at which she confronts just why it is that she has devoted several decades to the pursuit of higher office. Let's hope that it is a liberating moment for her and a point in time in which she vows to make the enactment of progressive policies her overriding objective. If she does, it seems certain that she will quickly win the affection of her progressive supporters to go along with their votes.       

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.