Schoolyard politics

Schoolyard politics

Legislative leaders threaten to pack up and go home if they don’t get their way

It would take a lot of hard work for the Republicans who run the General Assembly to make themselves look like complete fools in a P.R. battle with Governor Bev Perdue. Especially since she decided not to seek reelection, the Governor has often seemed distant and distracted in her public actions and statements. Her popularity numbers in the polls are low and she has only five-plus months to serve as a lame duck.

And yet, acting foolish is precisely what House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger seem intent upon doing. Consider the events of recent days surrounding the state budget.

The chain of events

Last week, despite stronger-than-expected state revenues and the recent revelation that GOP lawmakers had bestowed a tax break on wealthy business owners in 2011 that is now costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars (a break Speaker Tillis claimed he didn’t even know had been enacted) state lawmakers passed an ultra-conservative, “our-way-or-the-highway” FY 2013 budget that cuts education, provides paltry/illusory raises for teachers and state employees, fails to compensate eugenics victims and eliminates or slashes dozens of important and popular services.

Today, after being repeatedly rebuked by Berger and Tillis in her efforts to simply scale back slightly on the cuts (rebukes that came in spite of her complete surrender on the matter of raising the sales tax to meet the state’s real needs), Governor Perdue announced she would veto the budget in hopes of forcing some kind of additional negotiations that could provide at least a measure of compromise. Her overarching goal: To reduce the cuts to K-12 education.

Now, here’s what Tillis and Berger have essentially said thus far in response: “Nuts. We won’t negotiate. We’ll try to override your veto. If we can’t do that, we’ll simply go home without a new budget and leave the one passed last year in effect – a budget that would impose hundreds of millions more in cuts and that we freely admit will be harmful and counter-productive.”

You got that? At a point in time in which the power the two have consolidated in the General Assembly is at an all-time high – a moment in which they can easily obtain 90% of what they want in a state budget by scarcely lifting a finger – it appears that the GOP leaders are looking to create a political showdown and, perhaps, a genuine state budget crisis merely to avoid any hint of compromise with the Governor over what ultimately amount to a handful of extremely modest and politically popular requests.

Understanding the refusal to compromise

So why the tough guys stance? Why would experienced politicians at the height of their powers refuse to discuss even the most modest of compromises?

Think about it: All Tillis and Berger have to do in order to look like statesmen is add back a comparatively small amount of money to the K-12 budget, restore a few low-cost programs popular with conservatives and progressives alike like drug courts and anti-smoking programs and fund the eugenics compensation program and presto! Progressive anger would be deflated, the vast majority of the conservative anti-government agenda would remain intact and the mostly distracted public would nod in assent at the happy notion of semi-adult governance.

There are several possible reasons for why they are rejecting such an obvious course, but ultimately it seems likely to boil down to something like this:

Compromise and actual governing doesn’t fit the right’s current political agenda. Right now, agreeing to anything with Governor Perdue – even something extremely modest that is popular with voters like cutting taxes on the wealthy to help restore some K-12 cuts – undercuts their chosen political strategy for the fall of running against her from every possible angle. How can you portray someone as some kind of devil incarnate if you’re actually working with her to govern?

Add to this a measure of extremist, true-believer passion from the fringe right-wingers in the GOP legislative caucus (e.g. State Senator Don “if they’re sterile, they’re sterile” East) and an apparent belief that they simply have the votes to override the veto no matter what, and it’s easier to understand why the GOP leaders have taken such an extreme and gratuitously combative stance. Put simply and bluntly, they’re acting like jerks because they can.

A risky approach?

The big potential downside to the Republicans’ hardball strategy, of course, is that it’s premised on repeating last year’s feat of convincing a handful of conservative Democrats in the House to vote with them for an override of the Governor’s veto. If they are somehow unable to repeat the feat this year (an issue that remains at least somewhat in doubt), the debate over the budget quickly morphs into a dangerous political and policy standoff.

The Republican leaders claim that if they cannot get their way on the budget via an override, they will simply adjourn the session for the year and head home – thus leaving the two-year budget passed last year essentially intact. But to do this, the Republicans admit, would be to cut hundreds of millions of dollars more from education and other essential services than does the budget they sent to Perdue.

In other words, the Republican threat is this: If they do not get their way on the budget, they will simply pick up their toys and go home like a spoiled child on a playground.

Compromise? Governing? Those concepts are for wimps.

It is a remarkably risky and brazen approach, but they are apparently serious about it. Even before Perdue made her announcement, Tills and Berger were disingenuously claiming that by vetoing the budget Perdue is somehow “turning her back” on North Carolina’s school children.

Never mind that her veto is premised on infusing more money into the schools. And never mind that the GOP threat translates to: “If you don’t pass out budget harming kids, we’ll impose a budget that hurts them even more.” At this point, the Republicans appear to be putting all their eggs in the “no compromises” basket.

Reality check

Will it work? Will Tillis and Berger be able to use their schoolyard bullying tactics to avoid any semblance of compromise and governing?

Perhaps.

Two House Democrats have been absent from the General Assembly lately because of family crises and health reasons and the conservative. Democrats who supported the veto override last year are not a principled or courageous group. Another veto override is certainly possible.

Even if they prevail with such tactics, however, it’s clear that the GOP leaders will have crossed a new bridge when it comes to cynicism and manipulative tactics. In the long run, that will be a hard legacy to escape.

And what if the veto somehow stands and the Republicans actually carry through on their threat to leave town without a new budget? If this happens, it seems quite likely that Tillis and Berger will have set themselves up to do something that wouldn’t have seemed possible even a few days ago: losing a public relations battle with an unpopular lame duck governor. That’s an occurrence that Perdue and her would be successor Walter Dalton must be contemplating in their dreams.

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.
rob@ncpolicywatch.com
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