Going to extremes

Going to extremes

Senate Republican leader confirms that market fundamentalists are fully in charge

Since the beginning of the 2011 session, some caring and thoughtful observers of North Carolina politics have clung to the hope that not all legislative Republican leaders are far right ideologues. These folks have held on to the optimistic view that there is a difference between folks on the fire-breathing, anti-government, tea partying right and the more mainstream, corporate/country club types who are, on the whole, very conservative, but not complete ideologues.

This week, we learned that if such a divide exists, it is getting narrower all the time.

Showing one’s true colors

The latest confirmation of this sobering fact was there for all to see in a press conference held by Senate President Pro Tem, Phil Berger this week. The subject matter for the conference was the economy and jobs and Berger’s effort to respond to the growing chorus of criticism being leveled at legislative Republicans because their agenda has had nothing to do with improving either one.

Normally, Berger is a fairly understated and seemingly modest fellow – a small town lawyer who looks the part and who rarely lapses into the kind of pontificating tones that people have come to expect from hard-bitten ideologues like House Majority Leader Paul Stam and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Speaker Thom Tillis.

Going into Thursday’s press conference, it seemed at least possible that Berger would adopt a semi-conciliatory tenor in which he would have talked about finding common ground and maybe even admitted, at least tacitly, that Republicans have strayed during the early months of the 2011 session from their supposed top priority of jumpstarting North Carolina’s economy.

Unfortunately, such hopes were dashed shortly into the event. Rather than reaching out, Berger quickly went on the attack and lurched sharply to the right.

Here are some of Berger’s statements from the conference, followed by some brief reality checks that hold the statements up to the light of day. (You can watch the entire WRAL.com recording of the even by clicking here.)

Of jobs, Governor Perdue and Texas

Berger began the event with a brief prepared remark in which he said the following:

“Since Governor Perdue took office, the state has lost over 100,000 jobs.”

When pressed in the first question as to whether Governor Perdue could really be legitimately blamed for job losses resulting from the Great Recession, Berger replied that it was “the policies that Governor Perdue and the Democrats” have followed that are responsible.

When a reporter followed up by pointing out that North Carolina’s economic struggles have not been significantly different from a number of other, southeastern, textile-dependent states, Berger said:

“We’re concentrating on North Carolina. What we know is – is that when the recession started, North Carolina led the nation in job losses. South Carolina didn’t lead the nation in job losses. Georgia didn’t lead the nation in job losses. North Carolina went from having what appeared to be a fairly good job situation to one of the worst in the country.”

Berger followed this remark with several other fairly remarkable comments, including:

* One in which he stated that “It appears to me that the one job that Governor Perdue is worried about is her own”:
* Another in which he held up Texas as the model state for economic development; and
* Another in which the only two Republican accomplishments in support of the economy that he could call to mind were a) creating a committee to review regulations on business and b) not raising taxes.

Reality check

On the whole the Senator’s presentation was so convoluted, contradictory and confounding that it’s hard to know where to begin.

On jobs – First off, to blame Governor Perdue for the effects of the Great Recession – a worldwide disaster that officially commenced in December of 2007 and ended in the United States in June of 2009 (the month before the Governor’s first budget even took effect!) – is sophistry of the highest order. Similarly, the notion that North Carolina government should have retreated into some kind of Hoover-like shell at a time when all responsible economists were counseling the importance of maintaining public investments in order to prop up the economy and stave off a genuine depression is equally absurd.

Ah, but you say, “Governor Perdue is a Democrat and since Democrats were in power in North Carolina during the recession, it’s really all the same. You know what Senator Berger means.”

Well, actually no, it’s not “all the same.” First, Senator Berger seems to have conveniently forgotten that the Great Recession was, first and foremost, a byproduct of eight years of often bipartisan, casino capitalism spearheaded by President Bush. It was Bush’s deregulatory fervor that helped spur the housing bubble and the ensuing mortgage and financial crises.

Second, from 2001 to 2009, Beverly Perdue was North Carolina’s Lt. Governor – one of the most impotent political positions in state government. Guilt by association won’t do.

Third, things couldn’t have been too bad under the control of North Carolina Democrats. How do we know? Senator Berger told us. Re-read his statement above – in which even he admits that the state had “a fairly good job situation.”

Of course, in fairness, Republicans can and should take some of the credit for those relatively good times. Many of them voted for the Democratic budgets passed during the last decade. Heck, two of Berger’s lieutenants in the current session, Senators Richard Stevens and Stan Bingham voted for the Democratic budget in 2010!

On Texas As for the Senator’s assertion that Texas (Texas!!) ought to be North Carolina’s model for development, he simply can’t be serious. By any number of accounts and measurements, Texas is an economic and fiscal basket case. Has it enjoyed an economic rebound of late? Sure. Rising oil and gas prices will do that for a state that is dependent (and overly-so) on those dwindling commodities. But Texas also has a $27 billion budget shortfall, a Third World-like divide between rich and poor and any number of categories in which its quality of life ranks near the bottom. As the late, great Molly Ivins, once famously observed, in many ways, Texas is “Mississippi with good roads.” If this is Berger’s model for North Carolina’s future, God help us.

On taxes – Ultimately, of course, the main point of Senator Berger’s little talk was to make the case for the Republicans’ disastrous and hard-hearted decision to cut taxes from their present levels at a time when state budget revenues are only beginning to recover from the downturn. According to Berger, North Carolina’s economic development is being greatly retarded by “high taxes.”

But, of course, as business development publication after publication constantly reports, North Carolina is always near the top of “business friendly states.” Not only do these publications place North Carolina’s tax rates in the middle of the national pack, they report that taxes are always near the bottom of factors driving business development decisions. To argue that an extra half a cent on the sales tax and a small surcharge of the incomes of the state’s wealthiest citizens are somehow responsible for thousands of textile jobs fleeing to Southeast Asia is pure demagoguery.

Going forward

Berger’s talk appears to leave us with three “takeaways”:

1)      Barring something unforeseen, it’s clear that, for now, far right, market fundamentalists are firmly control of the North Carolina General Assembly.

2)      All that stands between North Carolina and several years of increased suffering is the will of a Governor who is still growing into the job and a handful of conservative House Democrats critical to sustaining her vetoes.

3)      Judging by some of Berger’s cheap shots against her, Governor Perdue is in for a no-hold-barred fight. If she really is concerned about keeping her job in 2012, now is the time for her to seize the initiative and portray her opponents as the extremists they are.

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.