Charting the Right’s voracious appetite for rolling back progress and settling old scores
At the end of the 2011-12 North Carolina General Assembly, more than one caring and thoughtful progressive took a look at the damage inflicted by conservative lawmakers and said something like this: “Well, at least they’re running out of reactionary ideas to enact and implement; things can’t get much worse.”
Today, just a few months later, such notions seem embarrassingly naïve. Whether the subject is unemployment insurance, health care policy, tax policy, environmental policy or a dozen other critical areas, conservatives have made it patently clear that they have just begun their work of rolling back the 20th Century. Driven by a toxic combination of extreme, market fundamentalist ideology and decades of pent-up grudges over real and imagined slights to their individual and collective egos, legislative leaders have unleashed a fusillade of reactionary and just plain spiteful legislative proposals that— barring some unforeseen check from our mostly somnambulant governor—seem likely to become the law of the land.
The down and dirty mean-spiritedness of the whole thing has become especially apparent in recent days as the focus has shifted from merely enacting reactionary social and economic policies to consolidating power, abusing process and punishing enemies.
Taking local battles statewide
One especially egregious example of this trend can be seen in the bills introduced by conservative Wake County lawmakers to undermine the duly elected county Board of Education.
First came a measure to seize the Board’s authority over school construction and maintenance and give it to the Board of County Commissioners. The proposal, of course, has nothing to do with good government (most experts think school boards should have more authority over such matters than they already have) and is all about politics. Conservatives hate the school board because it is now controlled by a narrow majority that opposes the far right’s education agenda.
Any even slightly plausible alternative explanation for the bill was debunked this week when Senator Neal Hunt introduced yet another bill to simply remake the school board itself. Under Hunt’s proposal, board member terms would be altered and rigged and district lines would be gerrymandered to produce a different board. The current four-year terms of conservative favorites John Tedesco and Deborah Prickett would be summarily extended for another year while other members disliked by conservatives would see their terms cut and their districts gerrymandered. The proposal is simply (and almost laughably) blatant and outrageous.
But, of course, the school board power plays are just two among many. In another example of bloodless, hardball, grudge-driven politics, Senator Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County is working to ram through legislation to seize Charlotte’s city-run airport and turn it over to a regional authority. The move prompted Charlotte Observer editorial cartoonist Kevin Siers to pen a pair of scathing takedowns. Click here and here to see them.
Meanwhile, just yesterday, lawmakers in both houses put forth bills to rescind the state’s contract with the City of Raleigh to lease Dix Park – a deal executed a few months ago during the waning days of the Perdue administration after years of discussion. At the time of the deal, then Governor-elect McCrory said he was “all for the park” and added this about his predecessor’s action: “She’s the governor. That’s how I feel about it. She has the authority to make those moves.” It remains to be seen if he will attempt to wriggle out of these statements.
Unprecedented power grabs
Interestingly, it is McCrory’s statement that serves to highlight what is perhaps the most troubling aspect of this whole spate of power grabs—a series that also clearly includes the much criticized and still pending proposal to empty several state boards and commissions of their lawfully appointed members. It is the matter of precedent and respect for fundamental rules of governance.
Contrary to the claims of some lawmakers and a handful of paid flacks and apologists, these bills are not simply matters of “politics as usual” or “normal, inside-the-beltline games.” Former legislative leaders and Governors of both parties had many faults that were frequently on display in recent decades, but power grabs of this magnitude were not among them.
Unfortunately, if the current legislative leadership gets its way and succeeds in passing most or all of these changes into law in the coming weeks, there’s every reason to expect that things will be very different in our state going forward. Having crossed a once-forbidden political Rubicon by radically altering several basic and long-agreed-to rules on how power is apportioned, current state leaders will have issued an open-invitation to their successors to do precisely the same thing. Ideologues and grudge-holders of both parties will no doubt be ready.