Hurricane Matthew non-response sets a new low when it comes to basics of governing
With the increasingly precarious situation in which he finds his presidency vis a vis the inquiries of the Senate Intelligence Committee, one would think that Donald Trump might well be taking any and all steps available to cozy up to the Committee’s chairman, North Carolina’s Richard Burr. Weirdly, however, no such actions were in evidence last week when it came to one of the most basic components of running the federal government – meting out disaster relief funds.
As multiple North Carolina and national news outlets reported, the Trump administration has largely denied the state’s request for federal assistance in responding to Hurricane Matthew. This from an article in Newsweek magazine:
“After Hurricane Matthew slammed into North Carolina last October, triggering evacuations and killing more than 20 people, state officials went to the federal government for help. The state asked for $929 million, most of which would go toward initiatives like fixing homes damaged by flooding, supporting farmers who lost livestock and funding mental health services for survivors.
This week, the state discovered it was likely getting $6.1 million—less than 1 percent of the amount requested.”
Yes, you read that right. As the dumbfounded editorial writers for Senator Burr’s hometown newspaper, the Winston-Salem Journal, put it this weekend:
“Hurricane Matthew, which hit Eastern North Carolina on Oct. 8, was devastating. At the peak of the storm, about 900,000 homes and businesses were without power. The flooding was catastrophic, and families were left scrambling for food, clean clothes and drinking water.
The storm caused an estimated $4.8 billion in damage, [Governor Roy] Cooper has said. The state has received $1.4 billion in federal and state money, so there’s a long way to go.
North Carolina pays its fair share in federal taxes for assistance at times like this. A generous people, most of us have not begrudged our contributions going to help others in times of similar crisis….
Come see for yourself, Mr. President. We think you’ll realize the need.”
Disturbingly, Trump’s middle finger to the people Down East is not merely the latest rogue act of an unpredictable and frequently unhinged president. By all indications, it is also an ideological act that is supported by the anti-government Right – even here in North Carolina.
Take Thom Tillis, for instance. Rather than following the basic rules of politics and blasting (or at least questioning) Trump’s decision to shortchange his constituents, North Carolina’s junior senator issued a statement (dutifully reported by a Republican mouthpiece known as the North State Journal) in which he, essentially, defended Trump’s actions and criticized Governor Cooper for having the temerity to complain.
State legislators – led by Senator Phil Berger – seem similarly supportive of limiting aid to Hurricane-impacted areas. The Senate budget passed last week allots just $70 million to Matthew relief even though it was approved after the federal announcement. (Another $80 million had been earmarked to match anticipated federal aid, but will go unused given that there are no federal dollars to match.)
As the Greensboro News & Record’s Doug Clark noted in a column last Wednesday, Berger has been bragging about bolstering the state’s “rainy day fund” to record levels (nearly $2 billion) even as the devastating effects of 15 inches of rain continue to plague the state’s eastern third:
“The proposed Senate budget unveiled yesterday ‘provides $150 million in disaster relief assistance to victims of Hurricane Matthew and adds $363 million to the state’s rainy day fund — bringing the savings reserve to its highest total ever,’ Berger says on his website.
If approved, this ‘brings the rainy day fund to $1.838 billion, or 8.2 percent of last year’s budget — the largest dollar amount and percentage in state history.’
What’s the purpose of having a ‘rainy day fund’ if not to use it for the ultimate rainy days such as those wrought by Hurricane Matthew?
And why should the feds give North Carolina $900 million when that’s not even half the amount North Carolina expects to sock away in savings?”
Not surprisingly, over at the state’s Art Pope-funded conservative think tanks, there’s been nary a peep of criticism and scarcely a mention of the hurricane and its aftermath. Indeed, at the Civitas Institute, the group’s fiscal policy staffer posted a scathing attack on the editorial page of Raleigh’s News & Observer for criticizing Berger on the issue of hurricane relief.
According to the author, the editorial shows that the “N&O editors” (one supposes he meant the folks who run the editorial page) are “a far-left group of statists” bent on stealing the citizenry’s wealth for nefarious purposes:
“The message from the N&O is clear: you do not own the money that you earned, it all belongs to the ruling class. The state owns you.”
Meanwhile, at the John Locke Foundation, the only recent mentions of Matthew relief have been fleeting and uncritical.
A fundamental failure to serve the citizenry
Blather on as they might about “statists” and the supposed “genius” of trickledown economics and incessant tax cuts for large, profitable corporations and the wealthy, the simple truth revealed in the hurricane controversy is that the policies of the Trump administration and its conservative allies represent a failure of governance of the highest order. As Martha Quillin of the N&O reported over the weekend, large numbers of North Carolinians continue to live in virtual squalor in the aftermath of Matthew as the result of a huge shortage of decent, affordable housing.
What’s more, the problem is massive. As Brian Kennedy of the NC Budget and Tax Center explained last week, the actual post-Matthew needs total close to $3 billion. As he also noted, this is hardly the first time North Carolina has had to fashion a robust response to a devastating storm:
“In 1999, Hurricane Floyd caused what is now considered to be lower levels of flooding and damage throughout the East. Governor Hunt and the General Assembly reacted by allocating $830 million state dollars to ensure a swift and speedy recovery. At that time more than one-third of the entire effort, $286 million, was pulled from the state’s Rainy Day Fund.”
Tragically and unlike 18 years ago, however, it appears there will be no such energetic initiative forthcoming. Instead of moving aggressively to carry out the core mission of government by serving and lifting up the people of what was, even before Matthew, one of the state’s most challenged regions, the plan is simply to, in effect, declare “move along, folks – nothing to see here.”
Let’s hope leaders like Governor Roy Cooper and Congressmen G.K. Butterfield and David Price as well as the people of eastern North Carolina refuse to acquiesce to this disgraceful plan. As NC Justice Center Executive Director Rick Glazier observed yesterday, it’s not too late to do the right thing:
“State lawmakers can immediately revise the Senate budget proposal to draw down the more than $1 billion socked away for a Rainy Day and stop planned income tax cuts for the wealthy and profitable companies that would reduce state revenues by $800 million. These dollars would be better used today to make sure that the more than 1,000 families without homes have a secure, affordable place to sleep. Those dollars could refurbish the region’s economic engines of agriculture and Main Streets by readying them to sustain the next storm and adapt to the new economy.”
Unfortunately, for now, it appears that despite its perilous posture in Washington (and even mainstream calls for impeachment), Trumpism rules when it comes to some basic aspects of American governance. And for now, North Carolina conservatives remain willing accomplices.