Weekly Briefing

Turning back the clock on progress

What North Carolinians can expect in 2011 if the right-wing is running the General Assembly

(Editor's note: Over the coming weeks, NC Policy Watch will release a series of special reports regarding some of the policy initiatives that are likely to gain traction in the North Carolina General Assembly if ideologues on the far right assume significant power in 2011. This is the first of those reports).

By any fair assessment, conservative and moderates run North Carolina. Though politicians affiliated with the Democratic Party have held most of the levers of power in the state over the past couple of decades, there is no denying that the policies they have pursued have, for the most part, tilted right of center. In comparison to more progressive states in the Northeast, Midwest and Pacific coast (and certainly most western democracies), North Carolina public policies are generally pro-big business, anti-union, pro-gun, pro-incarceration, anti-immigrant, anti-GLBT, pro-coal and nuclear, pro-tobacco, pro-landlord, and anti-tax.  

One need look no further than the recent appointment of David Hoyle, a conservative, pro-business Democratic senator, as the head of the state Department of Revenue to see a classic example of conservative hegemony in action.

Still, of course, there has been significant progress in some areas. North Carolina is not South Carolina (or Mississippi or Alabama)…yet. Our state revenue system retains some important progressive elements. The K-12 and higher education systems have certainly benefitted from significant state investments. State consumer protection laws are above average in many areas. More recently, the Racial Justice Act has been an important step forward in limiting some of the worst aspects of the death penalty and innovations in the world of voting and elections (public financing, same day voter registration, early voting, etc…) have helped move some aspects of the state's voting system into the 21st Century. The new smoking ban for certain public accommodations was also a big win for public health.

As voters prepare to head to the ballot box this fall, however, there can be little doubt that the state is flirting with a sharp turn even further to the right. Between the stated platforms and priorities of far right "think tanks" and lobbying groups, the Republican Party, and several candidates of both parties, it seems a sure thing that thinking North Carolinians have much to dread if ideologues do manage to transform current voter frustration with the slow economic recovery into a transformative election. Over the past several weeks, NC Policy Watch has examined the statements, promises and past proposals of conservative groups and individuals and identified at least 13 areas – a "dirty baker's dozen," if you will – in which reactionary policy change seems a good bet.

Over the coming weeks, we'll be exploring these subjects in special editions of the Weekly Briefing and the Fitzsimon File. We welcome your feedback – especially as to any topics that we may inadvertently omit. Today's topics: consumer protection and LGBT rights.

Buyers beware: Here come the predators

Over the past several decades, North Carolina has done a better job than a lot of states when it comes to consumer protection. Whether it's the laws and regulations the state has adopted to police various industries (especially in the field of consumer lending), the strong consumer protection enforcement work carried on by a series of Attorneys General, or the many predatory practices and bottom-feeding scams that the state has flat-out banned, North Carolina is a much better place to be a consumer than many other states.

To see tangible confirmation of this reality, take a drive down to Myrtle Beach sometime and check out the endless storefronts offering "payday" and "car title" loans. Next, drive a little further south to Georgia and Florida and check out the "Rent-a-Tire" and "Rent-a-Wheel" outfits seeking to separate young men (often in the military) from their incomes. After that, head to any number of states in which consumer loan companies pack all kinds of unrelated insurance products into their small loan transactions, finance the whole shady deal at 70% or 80% interest and then obtain court orders to garnish the wages of borrowers who come up short on their payments. If you really want to be amazed, head to one of the for-profit "debt counseling" outfits that are designed to extract extra pounds of flesh from people already desperately in over their heads. The list goes on and on.

Unfortunately, what frequently unifies these parasitic industries (and provides an excuse for the less reputable practices of any number of somewhat more respectable businesses) is a supposed commitment to "free markets." This is the mantra – frequently pushed by the right-wing echo chamber funded by Raleigh conservative activist Art Pope – that the lobbyists employed by a large number of predatory industries and causes return to time and again. It usually goes something like this: "We're not trying to take advantage of anyone; we're just trying to respond to the demands of our customers." This can be the explanation for a proposal to revive 400% annual percentage rate lending, to unfetter utility and cable companies or to allow landlords to extract any number of imaginative fees from tenants.

If the hard right does come to power next January, however, these arguments – which have often been resisted by only the narrowest of margins – seem much more likely to prevail. Whether it's a move to approve of the consumer finance industry's long sought increase in loan interest rates and fees, further erode protections for small residential utility consumers, introduce court-ordered wage garnishment for general consumer debts or even re-introduce payday lending and other banned businesses, it is clear that predatory industries and practices will be receive a much friendlier hearing from lawmakers than at any time in recent decades.

Back to the closet: the threat to LGBT rights      

When it comes to the rights of lesbians, gay men, and bisexual and transgendered people, North Carolina is already on the conservative side of the spectrum. Even with Democratic leadership, members of the LGBT community are second class citizens. They cannot marry; they do not enjoy protection from discrimination in the workplace; they lack access to all kinds of rights regarding property and family and privacy that heterosexuals take for granted.

And still, this is not enough for the ideologues and religious zealots on the right. Not only would these groups oppose any effort to bring North Carolina's marriage laws into the modern age by recognizing same sex marriage (a right currently denied to LGBT North Carolinians), they would seek to amend the state constitution to affirmatively enshrine the exclusion of hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians from this fundamental human right.

Moreover, not only are these forces committed to denying any expansion of LGBT rights to provide some measure of equality, they are making it a priority to roll back even the modest strides for tolerance and fairness achieved in recent years.

According to activists familiar with the statements and promises of conservative lawmakers and interest groups like the Family Policy Council, a new ultra-conservative General Assembly is likely to take action to repeal or gut the School Violence Prevention Act – last year's narrowly won victory to clarify that all children (including LGBT kids) should not be the victims of bullying in school.      

Further damning confirmation of the right's reactionary agenda on LGBT rights was provided this week when state lawmaker Larry Brown and House Republican leader Paul Stam exchanged emails with each other and nearly 60 other people regarding an award that Speaker Joe Hackney will be presented next month from the LGBT advocacy group, Equality NC. According to news reports, Brown's email said the following:

"I hope all the queers are thrilled to see him. I am sure there will be a couple legislative fruitloops there in the audience."

Stam's response to the offensive and hateful statement: Brown should apologize to anyone who received the message and might have been offended (emphasis supplied). As for the millions of North Carolinians who would be aghast that an elected official would use such language, they're apparently out of luck. And out of luck is apparently what LGBT North Carolinians will be in 2011 if the ideologues on the right take control of the General Assembly.

Going forward

As noted this is the first of several special features regarding some of the likely agenda items of a far right General Assembly in 2011. Check back frequently in the days ahead for additional reports.