An open letter to newly elected conservative lawmakers

An open letter to newly elected conservative lawmakers

Don’t let myths and ideology control your actions

Dear Friends:

Now that the campaign is over and you are about to take over the levers of power in North Carolina government, there are a few things that some of us in the progressive movement would ask you to consider – about our state, about the budget and the public services and structures it funds and about the nature of our concerns.

We offer this appeal with all sincerity and in good faith.

To begin, we’d ask that you please bring an open mind to Raleigh. Over the decades, countless politicians who based their campaigns on a particular argument have come to discover upon entering office that they had received bad information. In 1960, John F. Kennedy famously campaigned on a supposed “missile gap.” When he took office, however, he discovered that it did not exist.

We believe that a similar phenomenon may now be at work in North Carolina. This is especially true if you are basing all of your opinions and attitudes upon what you have seen and heard on FOX News, talk radio or the various reports and opinion pieces generated by the conservative think tanks here in Raleigh.  

To illustrate this point, consider a recent essay written by a staffer at the Pope-Civitas Institute. It was produced in an effort to take this author to task for saying the following in Raleigh’s News & Observer regarding the huge state budget cuts currently under consideration:

"These kinds of cuts would be an absolute disaster. They would decimate a host of already underfunded programs and wipe out decades of progress. We're talking about firing thousands of teachers, health care providers, mental health workers, and providers of aid to seniors.

"If we want North Carolina to look like some dark, crumbling rust belt state that's all but given up on progress, that is merely trying to survive, these are the kinds of cuts we would implement”

In the essay, the staffer tosses out a volley of statements and statistics that purport to show that progressives are a bunch of power hungry freaks and that state government spending is out of control. At first blush, some of these arguments might seem persuasive – especially if you don’t get to hear much from progressives. The truth, however, is just the opposite.

Here, therefore, is a sincere and genuine response that seeks to bust a few myths and maybe even uncover some common ground:

#1 – The current budget crisis is not, as the staffer alleges, “a minor speed bump on the out-of-control race down North Carolina’s budget highway.” The current crisis is real and enormous. If you attempt to meet your constitutional obligation to balance the budget next year without enacting any changes to plug the budget hole caused by the economic downturn and expiring taxes, you will be causing great harm. Thousands of classrooms will be darkened; thousands of people will do without essential medical care; thousands of mentally ill and disabled people will be worse off than they already are; many roads, bridges and sewers will crumble; scores of college professors will leave for other states; hundreds of businesses that depend on a well-educated workforce and a robust infrastructure will wither or never come to North Carolina.

Moreover, state spending is demonstrably not “out-of-control.” Indeed, next year’s state budget is on pace to be the smallest (as a percentage of state personal income) since 1972! The Pope-Civitas staffer makes much of the fact that North Carolina has added 34,824 state employees between 2001 and 2009. What he fails to tell you is that this constitutes 12.3% growth during a period in which the state’s population grew by 14.5%. Add to this the fact that the overwhelming majority of growth was in education – an area in which North Carolina has long lagged behind the rest of the nation and has been trying to catch up and it’s obvious that his claim is baseless.  

As for his allegation that there is some vast and diabolical network of “paper-pushing bureaucrats” in the education system, consider the following facts from the U.S. Census: North Carolina ranks 49th in the nation in state and local spending on public school central office administration and 38th in the nation in spending on in-school administration.

Finally, the staffer’s claims that this growth is especially terrible because private employment fell slightly during this time frame and because state employees make more than folks in the private sector are just absurd. First of all, the decline in private employment occurred entirely during 2008 and 2009; it was growing before that. Does the writer think we should fire state employees when the economy turns south – at the moment in which the demand for services goes up? As for the allegations that state employees are overpaid, walk into any public school classroom, DMV office, prison or mental health facility in the state and try explaining that to the frazzled and “overpaid” state employees doing their best under difficult circumstances.

#2 – Progressives do not, as the writer alleges, “advocate for concentration of power in the hands of the ruling class.” While the writer is entitled to his rhetorical flourishes, this allegation is just silly. You, as a newly elected state lawmaker, have not become part of the state’s “ruling class.” Neither are the thousands of average North Carolinians who staff our various agencies and teach our children. Anyone who really believes this has a lot to learn about power and about our state. To the contrary, one of the key objectives of the progressive movement is to democratize power in our state – to press large corporations and the super-wealthy (the real ruling class) to share at least some of the overwhelming power that they possess and will, inevitably, always possess.   

#3 – Many services and structures are already underfunded. The writer complains, absurdly, that it is wrong to say that state programs are already underfunded and that “liberals never provide an answer” as to what levels would be sufficient. The truth, of course, is that people of all parties and philosophies have long acknowledged that all kinds of essential state services and structures are underfunded. Good grief – has the writer ever visited one of our state adult care homes?! A correctional institution?  Inspected a crumbling bridge or worn out school building? Looked at the waiting lists for child care subsidies for low-income working moms or life-saving AIDS drugs? Talked to an overwhelmed special ed teacher? The list of unmet needs is as long as your arm. Moreover, there are scores of bipartisan reports and recommendations that spell out in great detail what it would take to move the state to a respectable level of services.

#4 – Progress is threatened. The writer complains that “liberals” define progress as “a greater accumulation of power into the hands of politicians and bureaucrats.” Come on, man, get serious! It was "progress” when North Carolina left behind its past as a poor, segregated, underdeveloped state. It occurred when, through visionary and intentional action, state leaders built a raft of public structures, systems and services that lifted us above our erstwhile peers in South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi.

Progress is threatened when decades of such work is undermined and/or rolled back. And not firing thousands of people who teach our kids, guard our prisons, preserve our roads and help tend to our most vulnerable citizens does not constitute some kind of mad rush to accumulate power in the hands of “politicians and bureaucrats.” Neither does keeping state spending from falling to its lowest level in 39 years.

Dying in the streets?

According to the writer, my warnings were so dire that I might as well have alleged that people will be “dying in the streets.” Well, actually, if one looks at the inadequacies that already plague our systems of mental health, justice and public safety, and even public education (where the lack of alternative schools condemns thousands of troubled teens to a premature life on their own) it’s not a stretch to say that people are already “dying in the streets.” Sadly, big new budget cuts will only increase these numbers.

Such hard facts may be unpleasant to contemplate and mesh poorly with talking points provided by anti-government ideologues and campaign consultants, but they are undeniably real. And they are your responsibility now. We pray that you will listen to and work with all who would help you address them.