The Governor tries and fails to put a positive spin on 2015
With the 2016 political year underway, it’s no surprise that elected leaders have been attempting to put a positive spin on the state of North Carolina’s economy and government (and their own roles in producing the current state of affairs). Last week, for instance, Governor Pat McCrory issued a New Year’s Eve video statement in which, in the frequently tortured syntax that has become one of his trademarks, he proffered a scattershot array of claims about where the state stands and the performance of his administration. The video (click here to watch ) was accompanied by a bulleted list of 12 “accomplishments” under the headings “Economy,” “Education” and “Efficiency.”
The Governor’s release came just a day after Senate leader Phil Berger issued a similar list of “accomplishments”  under a Lincolnesque photo of himself gazing into space and the headline “Reflecting on a Productive Year.” House Speaker Tim Moore, who’s been a trifle busy of late waging a nasty fight with fellow House Republicans  and dealing with an FBI investigation into his campaign finance practices , has yet to issue such a formal statement.
As usual, the gist of Governor McCrory’s pitch was that North Carolina is in the midst of a rousing economic “comeback” that’s been spurred by his administration’s policies. According to the Governor, the state is overflowing with new jobs and is one of the top performing states in the nation in putting people to work. This is from the statement that accompanied his video:
- Added over 230,000 private sector jobs.
- Paid off $2.8 billion federal debt.
- Led the drive for the $2 billion Connect NC bond referendum to invest in universities, community colleges, parks, National Guard facilities, and water and sewer infrastructure.
- Modernized the tax code to put more dollars in the paychecks of North Carolinians, spur job creation and to save families and business owners $4.4 billion over the first five years of tax reform.”
But, of course, these cherry-picked factoids tell only a tiny portion of the real story. The truth of the matter is that while North Carolina certainly has participated in the national economic recovery, things are anything but rosy for a huge swath of the population. As N.C. Budget and Tax Center economist Patrick McHugh pointed out last week :
“If we counted all of the people who have left the labor market over the last several years because there are not enough jobs to go around, unemployment in North Carolina is likely still north of 10% . Even those who have been able to find work represent a smaller share of North Carolinians with a job than before the recession started .”
What’s more, as McHugh also notes, McCrory’s claim that North Carolina has secured its supposedly lofty position by aggressively slashing taxes and public spending is similarly off-base:
“Unfortunately, economic reality has not yet produced a change of course in Raleigh. Many elected leaders continue to believe that tax cuts will solve our economic ills, in spite of the fact that states like California and Massachusetts that focus more on investing than cutting have seen stronger recoveries than North Carolina or our neighbors to the south .”
And while placing some kind of a bond package to fund state infrastructure before voters this year is probably a good idea, McCrory’s claims about paying off “$2.8 billion in federal debt“ and putting more money in the paychecks of average people by cutting taxes are both wildly off-base.
The debt payoff was, of course, accomplished by imposing what were likely the largest and most devastating cuts to unemployment insurance benefits and eligibility in modern American history. In other words, McCrory is claiming credit for inflicting unprecedented pain on the incomes of hundreds of thousands of struggling North Carolinians and the businesses (grocery stores, gas stations etc.…) that they would have patronized with more cash in their pockets.
Meanwhile, the tax cut claims are similarly outrageous. As has been explained in this space on multiple occasions, the vast majority of the billions in tax cuts enacted by state leaders in recent years will inure to the benefit of wealthy individuals and profitable corporations. As NC Budget and Tax Center experts reported last fall  with respect to the new tax cuts included in the 2015 budget bill:
“On average, North Carolinians making $20,000 a year or less will see their overall state taxes go up slightly by $7. Those making between $34,000 and $57,000, on average, will receive a tax cut of $44, which equates to $3.67 per month. The top 1 percent, those making at least $423,000 a year, will on average receive a tax cut of nearly $2,000.”
Such changes have no more to do with “modernization” than do rolling back hard won voting rights, environmental protection laws or women’s reproductive freedoms.
The harsh reality on the ground
Despite the Governor’s cheery attempts at spin, the plain and unavoidable truth is that state leaders did precious little in 2015 (or 2011, ‘12, ‘13 or ’14, for that matter) to improve the lives of average North Carolinians. For a classic example of how the Governor’s claims fail to mesh with reality, compare his assertions about supposedly boosting education spending with this recent WUNC radio story  in which reporter Reema Khrais highlighted the numerous North Carolina public school teachers who are working multiple jobs in an effort to make ends meet in light of their abysmal salaries.
In a similar vein, compare McCrory’s claims of pride in the state’s environmental protection work (a statement back-dropped in the video by images of beautiful natural scenes) with the amazing list of destructive acts  that the state has actually taken in recent years to dismantle environmental protection efforts.
The truth is also borne out by the 12 powerful charts included in this new North Carolina Justice Center-sponsored website, Resolve to Act in 2016 . As the website explains:
- Actual state unemployment is nearly double the official measure.
- Employment levels in the state are still well below what they were at the start of the Great Recession.
- “High tech” states are outperforming “low tax” states.
- North Carolina workers are receiving less and less of the value they create.
- State average hourly wages are not keeping up with national wages.
- Wages for African Americans and Hispanic Americans are falling even further behind.
- The state minimum wage doesn’t come close to providing a living income.
- The percentage of people living in poverty remains well above pre-Great Recession levels.
- Many hard hit areas of the state continue to see poverty rates in excess of 25%.
- State appropriations remain at historically low levels.
In other words, try as he will to make lemonade out of the lemons his administration and the General Assembly have churned out, there’s simply no getting past the fact that North Carolina’s overall health and wellbeing have been on a downward trend for several years – a drift greatly exacerbated in 2015. At a point in our history during which we could well be leading the rest of the southeast, and indeed the nation, on a path toward sustainable prosperity, North Carolina is, as we reported last October , a drabber, shabbier and more divided state that is racing to repeal much of the progress of the 20th Century.
his recent and comprehensive review of the year in state policy , North Carolina Council of Churches commentator Steve Ford explained in detail what really happened last year and how little impact Governor McCrory really had on most issues. Seen through this lens, it is perhaps understandable that the Governor felt compelled to spin the narrative as aggressively as he did in the New Year’s Eve video. Better to claim credit for controversial and destructive acts that weren’t really even one’s doing, goes the cold political calculus, than to be seen as completely irrelevant. Sadly, given the state of our big money-dominated and lightly reported politics in 2016, he may just be right.
(Above Image: Screen grab from ‘Governor McCrory Reflects on 2015’ video )