Good riddance to 2015

Good riddance to 2015

Looking back at a forgettable year in state policy

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For those of us who want to see North Carolina governed with the interests of all its residents in mind – not mainly the interests of the well-off and privileged – 2015 amounted to yet another slog down a disappointing path.

It was the third full year since conservative Republicans completed their takeover of power in Raleigh, gaining large majorities in both the state House and Senate while Republican Pat McCrory seized the governor’s office. McCrory, now seeking a second four-year term, largely has seemed content to let top legislators set the agenda. His rare vetoes – twinges of moderation, one might say — have been tossed aside like so much junk mail.

The arc of state policy has inclined steeply toward less spending and lower taxes, neither of which is conducive to robust programs and services boosting opportunity for all and promoting public well-being in its many dimensions.

At the same time, conservative ideology has played out on a number of other fronts: for example, weakened environmental regulations, lackluster support for public universities and traditional public schools, antipathy toward poor people’s health care needs and toward the marriage rights of same-sex couples.

The picture, however, is not without its bright spots. Three years down that conservative path, North Carolinians now have every reason to understand what it’s all about – and to be concerned. The pushback from civil rights, social justice and public education advocates has been steady and not without results.

McCrory in his re-election bid, and legislators when they return to Raleigh in the spring, will be mindful that another reckoning at the polls will be upon them soon enough. It wouldn’t be a shock if the conservative tide began to recede as voters ponder another verdict on what kind of state they want this to be – a state where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great, as the famous verse says, or one where moneyed insiders hoard power and its perquisites for their own benefit.

Dollar days

The General Assembly’s chief duty is to enact a state government budget, or overall spending plan, and to figure out how to fund it. In 2015, despite solid Republican control, the process was anything but smooth. It highlighted a split between the Senate, where the push to cut both spending and taxes continued unabated, and the House, where leaders were more inclined to tap the brakes on government downsizing.

A budget should have been in place by the start of the 2015-16 fiscal year on July 1. But versions proposed by the House and Senate were nowhere near compatible. A compromise emerged after weeks of secretive haggling and horse-trading. For instance, the Senate had wanted to ax the jobs of some 5,000 elementary school teaching assistants but agreed to keep them on board.

Still, the $21.74 billion final spending figure was closer to the Senate’s original proposal than to the House’s. And while spending is set to rise about 3 percent from 2014-15, needs that went unaddressed during prior budget cycles as revenues were dragged down first by the recession and then by tax cuts remain glaring.

The Republican theory – and they’re sticking to it — is that lower taxes help create jobs and stimulate the economy. North Carolina’s economic picture indisputably has improved in the recession’s aftermath as it has joined in the national recovery. But to attribute the improvement to tax cuts is akin to the rooster taking credit for daybreak because it follows his cock-a-doodles.

The big companies that are serious job creators do look at taxes in deciding where to locate or expand. But just as important, if not more so, are good education systems, well-designed and maintained transportation networks and other amenities that add up to a superior quality of life for folks who live here. The skimpier the flow of tax revenue, the harder it is to meet those standards.

Taxing lessons

In the face of that, legislators have whacked the state’s most significant revenue source, the personal income tax, by a $1 billion or so a year – and the gap keeps growing. They’ve done it by flattening what used to be a progressive tax, by which high-end earners paid at higher rates, and lowering the rate overall.

Yes, people who don’t make much money to start with might save a bit, but not as much proportionately as their high-income counterparts. And meanwhile, to make up some of the lost income tax revenues, legislators in 2015 broadened the sales tax so that it now covers a range of services such as car repairs. Even as they restored a deduction for medical expenses that had been sorely missed by many taxpayers, the state’s money-masters managed to shift the overall tax burden in the direction of people who are less able to bear it. It’s as though those people were told: “You need government services? OK, pay up!”

Despite raises for early-career teachers, the state’s teacher corps will have to continue to make do with salaries that rank among the country’s lowest. That is, the teachers who out of dedication remain at their posts.

Turnover in the teachers’ ranks and a dwindling supply of recruits in the pipeline are signs that the state’s public schools are being hollowed out from within. But that hardly seems to be a top legislative concern, given that funds are being channeled away from mainstream schools toward pseudo-public charters (they get public money but can choose their students) or even toward private schools in the form of tuition vouchers.

Nor is K-12 education the only arena where conservative policies are in the driver’s seat. The University of North Carolina system in 2015 undertook what could be a fateful rightward pivot, under the leadership of a Board of Governors answerable to conservative legislators and evidently set on putting the whole enterprise on a more corporate-like footing.

Campus crunch

Students and their families naturally want their higher education investment to pay off, and taxpayers have a right to expect universities to be well-managed and cost-effective. But no university worth its salt can be judged chiefly on the basis of how many job offers its graduates attract or how much money they earn.

The university system’s president-designate, Republican Party insider and former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, hopefully will resist pressures to reshape the system – a cornerstone of the state’s progress – into one where workforce development is not just one goal but the primary goal. The advent of the Spellings era in 2016 could have profound implications for the state’s future, particularly if the legislature continues to tighten up on state support while costs borne by students and their families keep climbing.

Gov. McCrory let it be known that he thought his party’s tax-cutting push had gone far enough and that to forgo even more revenue would be to put programs at risk. Yet when legislators sent him a budget specifying a further drop in the income tax, McCrory went ahead and signed it. His campaign boasts about the state’s commitment to education funding now raise the question: How much more could be done to pay teachers fairly or to make universities more affordable if taxes weren’t repeatedly being slashed?

The fact is, 2015 didn’t end up giving McCrory a whole lot to brag about. One victory: The legislature agreed to his proposal for a major bond issue, to be put to a referendum in March. If it’s approved, $2 billion will be borrowed to finance a range of repair and construction projects, including a substantial number on university campuses.

Rules off the rails

The governor, working with allies in the House, no doubt helped put a more moderate spin on some bills. But he also saw fit to sign off on one of the year’s more misbegotten measures, a regulatory “reform” bill favored by legislators who always seem to be bending over backward to make life easier for business interests, never mind the consequences.

From the perspective of those who favor careful regulation of activities threatening the environment, House Bill 765 was a classic train wreck – both in its contents and in the way its backers abused the legislative process.

The House approved the bill as a one-page tweaking of rules regarding the hauling of gravel. The Senate then employed the tactic known as “gut and amend.” It turned the bill into a 58-page all-you-can-eat buffet of rules changes covering all kinds of regulatory activities – the kinds that are supposed to protect the public from free-market capitalism run amok. It would have been the rare legislator who understood all the ramifications of what he or she was being asked (or told) to approve.

But approve it they did, amidst the legislature’s late September, pre-adjournment flurry. Environmentalists called on McCrory to issue a veto, but he declined. Even if he’d been tempted to use his veto stamp, he might have figured it would be futile.

Vetoes won’t hold

Earlier in the session, McCrory twice decided that the mess presented to him by his friends in the legislature was more than he could stomach.

The governor to his credit has a soft spot for animal welfare. So when presented with an “ag-gag” bill – exposing animal abuse whistle-blowers to lawsuits – he used his veto to try to head it off. No luck. The veto was handily overridden.

Another veto was meant not only to defend the rights of same-sex couples but also to uphold principles of orderly governance. Urged on by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, the legislature passed a bill that allows magistrates to decline to perform marriage ceremonies on the basis of a “sincerely held religious objection.” The upshot is that some magistrates – thankfully, not many – have decided they won’t officiate at the marriages of gays or lesbians.

McCrory cast his veto without endorsing same-sex marriage. But he was on point in arguing that civil servants shouldn’t be allowed to pick and choose which of their prescribed duties they will perform, based on personal preference. Almost by definition, that looks to be a violation of the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law. Our legislators, who kicked the governor’s veto to the curb, didn’t see it that way.

Picking his spots

It may be that McCrory helped dial back a bill that would have gutted the state’s system whereby county sheriffs decide whom should be issued a pistol permit. But another bill intended to jump-start North Carolina’s death penalty, on hold since 2006, didn’t seem to give the governor much pause.

The bill lifts the requirement that a physician be on hand during executions. That’s a significant issue when it comes to the ethics of the medical profession. But more than that, we’ve seen far too many instances where people in line for the death penalty have been exonerated to feel comfortable with its continued use. The governor, with larger principles of justice in mind, should have tried to keep this law off the books.

McCrory also could have stepped forward as a leader by nudging North Carolina toward better health care for many low-income residents via a broader Medicaid program, as envisioned under the federal Affordable Care Act. Could have, but didn’t.

It’s estimated that expansion would help upwards of 400,000 adults who now typically must rely on charities or hospital emergency rooms, where the costs end up being borne by insured patients. But the governor evidently didn’t want to tangle with legislators worried about added state expense and resistant to any program linked to so-called Obamacare. The toll of their resistance in terms of human suffering doesn’t seem to register.

Performance reviews

Whether the state’s policy-setters will be held to account for their assorted errors of omission and commission will be a key story line in the 2016 elections.

At the legislative level, candidates seeking to impose that accountability will have to overcome the effects of voting district boundaries skewed to help sustain Republican majorities in Raleigh. The current districts, drawn by Republican legislators after the 2010 census, face court challenges brought by civil rights and social justice groups.

The Republican-controlled state Supreme Court recently gave those districts a clean bill of constitutional health. But the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 signaled a growing impatience with redistricting that uses race to advance partisan interests – meaning that North Carolina’s legislative and congressional districts as now configured are not out of the woods.

Also still under legal scrutiny are election rules that voting rights supporters say unfairly restrict voting opportunities for poor people, people of color and other folks who tend to favor progressive candidates. One rule that would have had a significant impact, a strict photo ID requirement, was recast in 2015 to make it more lenient – a tacit acknowledgement that it was likely to be struck down by the courts. But the early voting period remains shrunken, and people no longer can register and vote on the same day.

All told, the rules add up to inconvenience for folks who may be juggling multiple jobs and who may change residences relatively often. The Council of Churches is among those who believe that we should encourage more people to vote, not fewer.

Of course there must be rules to ensure that elections are conducted honestly and votes are counted accurately. But our laws are more likely to reflect the public will when the officials who make them are chosen by a broad cross-section of the electorate. And the polls remain a channel by which citizens who otherwise lack power or influence can make their voices heard.

Unneeded ‘protection’

One of the last big controversies arising in the 2015 legislative session could spill over into the session scheduled to begin in May – and indeed could become a defining issue in next year’s campaigns.

It involves a bill dubbed the Taxpayer Protection Act. While taxpayers understandably want to be protected from wasteful spending, the concept behind Senate Bill 607 is to put North Carolina on a smaller-government footing in perpetuity. That could be disastrous in depriving budget- and tax-writers with the flexibility to meet real needs.

The bill would cap the individual income tax at 5 percent, well below levels that have prevailed in recent years even with ongoing cuts. (The rate is set to drop to 5.499 percent in 2017.) Besides that, future budget increases would not be allowed to outpace a measure linking population growth and inflation. These provisions would be folded into the state constitution if voters, in a referendum, said OK.

The budget constraint might sound reasonable. But demographics suggest otherwise. For example, North Carolina’s population is aging. Older folks place a heavier demand on services than do their younger counterparts. Inevitably, the budget would be squeezed in a fashion that pitted generations against each other. To meet revenue needs, sales taxes and property taxes might well have to be raised. That can put a disproportionate burden on poor people and senior citizens.

The Senate – where the banner of conservative ideology flies high — approved the Taxpayer Protection Act in August in wham-bam fashion. Cooler heads prevailed in the House, and the bill was sidetracked. But it remains alive for the 2016 session, when its fate presumably will be decided by House leaders.

Republicans might like to have the issue on the ballot during next fall’s elections as catnip to conservative voters. Still, pragmatists in the GOP ranks might not want to see budget-writers’ hands tied so tightly.

A chief executive, especially, is more likely to construct his legacy on a foundation of wise investment rather than on penny-pinching that hinders government’s ability to help make a difference in people’s lives. The Council of Churches and its allies will be pushing to ensure that McCrory and future governors, as well as legislators, have the leeway they need to run state government not just cheaply but also effectively.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches.