Weekly Briefing

Well, that didn’t take long

Right-wing legislators aren’t waiting until January to advance their extreme agenda

It seems there’s always been a moment in the wake of recent right-wing electoral victories in which progressives and moderates have grasped for silver linings and rays of hope.

Or maybe it’s just been the denial that often follows traumatic events.

Whichever the case, it’s a familiar pattern. Remember in late 2000 when George W. Bush was going to be a “compassionate conservative” and Dick Cheney was “the grown-up who will keep a steady hand on foreign policy”? Remember when John McCain was a “moderate conservative” who, upon winning the GOP nomination in 2008 could be counted on to select an equally sober running mate? Remember two years ago when Thom Tillis’ triumph over the Christian right’s favorite state lawmaker, Paul Stam, in the race for House Speaker signified that the semi-moderate Charlotte business establishment would be running the North Carolina General Assembly?

As caring and thinking people quickly found out in each of these instances and many other similar ones in recent years, the 21st Century conservative movement isn’t your mother and father’s conservative movement.  No, these people see the world through a radical prism that might even cause Jesse Helms to blink a few times and shake his head in amazement. And they’re not particularly interested in listening to their adversaries, getting along or building consensus. A large percentage of them are filled with a messianic belief that they are commanded by the Almighty or, at least, the supposedly infallible “genius of the market” (or both) to enact dramatic and wholesale societal changes as fast as possible.

History repeats itself

This year, with conservatives sweeping to power in Raleigh in numbers not seen since the pre-integration days of the late 1950’s, it appears that the period of straw grasping and denial have been cut short even faster than usual. Indeed, it’s taken less than two weeks. After a scant few days in which progressives and moderates watched and hoped for signals of sanity from the seemingly affable Governor-elect, events have conspired to quickly bring things back to earth.

First, it was the ridiculous rants of the once-supposedly reasonable Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger who turned his staff loose to launch an almost hysterical broadside against Governor Perdue for daring to do her job in the implementation of federal health care law. The attack would have made Orval Faubus or Ross Barnett proud.

Check out the Senator’s November 15 fundraising letter as it characterizes Perdue’s modest ministerial action to begin the process of implementing the health care exchange required under federal law (a concept that North Carolina House Republicans even endorsed last year!):

“Just days after voters delivered a crushing repudiation of Bev Perdue’s failed policies, the lame-duck governor is trying to shove Obamacare down our throats.

Yes, the same Obamacare we rejected in the 2010 elections. And the same governor we rejected last week.

Her parting gift to the voters she ignored for four years – and whose impending re-election verdict forced her into an early retirement – is an eleventh hour embrace of a massive government healthcare takeover we don’t want and can’t afford.”

Wow. That’s for endorsing an idea supported by hospitals and insurance companies! Just think what they would have done and said had she actually done something bold or courageous.

Now, this week, comes something a lot more ominous than a fundraising letter.

In recent days, it has been revealed that legislative leaders have been meeting secretly (and quite possibly illegally) with business lobbyists for months to hatch what may well be one of the biggest wealth grabs in state history. At issue is the state’s most important anti-poverty safety net program for the protection and preservation of the middle class: unemployment insurance.

According to AP news reports, legislative leaders are nearing a “deal” on “reforming” the unemployment insurance system that will likely include huge cuts to the amount of benefits and duration of weeks that the unemployed can obtain to tide them over while they look for a new job. The “deal” has been worked out between select legislators and the Chamber of Commerce with no input from workers or worker advocates – none, zilch, bupkis.

A critical safety net for workers, their families and the economy

That it would come to this is not surprising. The right has long condemned unemployment insurance as a program that promotes sloth – as if the state’s 9.2% unemployment rate was the byproduct of shiftless workers gaming every possible angle in an effort to avoid going back to work and collect the munificent average sum of $290 week. Just last year, the General Assembly held thousands of families hostage for several weeks by cutting off their benefits in order to blackmail Perdue into signing their state budget. Some conservative lawmakers even argue that the system should be abolished.

But, of course, unemployment insurance is, in truth one of our nation’s most important and effective public structures for preventing abject poverty and sustaining communities hit hard by economic downturns. What’s perhaps most remarkable about the stealthy assault on unemployment is the obliviousness it displays toward the ancillary beneficiaries of the system. What do the opponents of unemployment insurance think it is that pays the rent, mortgage, utility and grocery bills of the tens of thousands of families dependent upon the program? Can’t they see how critical such benefits are to keeping communities (and businesses) afloat during hard times?

To acknowledge such obvious truths, however, might call attention to the real cause of the huge debts the program has been running up in recent years during the Great Recession and its aftermath: the huge, repeated and sometimes irresponsible tax cuts sought and granted to the business lobby during the previous two decades by both political parties.

As Chris Fitzsimon noted yesterday:

“Lawmakers cut unemployment taxes on businesses six times between 1992 and 2000 and the N.C. Budget & Tax Center reports that if the state had required businesses to pay into the unemployment trust fund at the average national tax rate from 1990-2004, the fund would have had a balance of $2.8 billion in 2004, three years before the Great Recession began. There would be no debt to repay now.”

Now, despite many years in which unemployment taxes were frequently and literally zero for a huge number of North Carolina businesses, the right’s solution to what ails the cash-strapped system is to slash worker benefits at a time when they can least afford it while not even including their representatives in the discussion!

Going forward

It may not be a silver lining or a ray of hope, but there is at least one good thing about the rapidity with which the right has dispelled any illusions of moderation. Right off the bat, in their first big policy initiative since the 2012 election, North Carolina conservatives have served notice that the haves of our state do not like the status quo; they want an even bigger share of the pie than they already enjoy and will soon be doing everything in their power to adjust the balance.

At least we know the score.

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