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A lost decade: Ten ways in which conservative policies have grievously harmed North Carolina

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At the dawn of the new decade, not everything is worse in North Carolina than it was ten years ago when conservative ideologues assumed power. For some pockets of the population, the past decade has brought a measure of growth, expanded rights and enhanced prosperity.

For the state as a whole, however, this optimistic assessment clearly does not apply. Thanks to the political Right’s abandonment of the state’s historic commitment to progress via intentional public solutions, North Carolina has wasted a decade that it could have spent making important headway in a raft of important areas at a crucial historical juncture. Here are ten key missed opportunities and wrong turns:

#1 – The failure to address the environmental crisis – As environmental reporter Lisa Sorg’s 2020 preview story [2] made clear yesterday, an increasingly dire environmental crisis confronts the human species. Here in North Carolina, this grim reality is apparent in rising seas and disappearing lands, increasingly intense storms and droughts, poisoned water and air, lost open space and an ongoing and rapid decline in biodiversity. Meanwhile, the state’s conservative political leadership has refused to even acknowledge the existence of the crisis, much less tackle it.

#2 – The failure to build an economy that works for all – Today, several years into the economic recovery that began under President Obama, many North Carolinians are, on average, worse off [3] than they were prior to the Great Recession. Inequality and poverty [4] (particularly for people of color) remain at obscene levels, the safety net is torn and threadbare, middle class jobs are scarce and median family income is down $2,000 since the turn of the century.

#3 – The failure to expand Medicaid – When it comes to tangible and specific policy choices that have directly harmed large numbers of North Carolinians, it’s hard to top the ongoing failure to follow the lead of 37 other states by expanding Medicaid [5]. Thousands of people have lost their lives prematurely and billions of federal dollars that could have bolstered the economy have been refused.

#4 – The dramatic worsening of the tax code – North Carolina has always had a regressive tax code in which those at the middle and the bottom pay a greater share of their incomes in state and local taxes than those at the top. Over the past decade, however, this situation has grown dramatically worse [6] thanks to big tax cuts targeting wealthy individuals and profitable corporations.

#5 – The assault on public structures and services – The flipside to the decline of the tax code has been the resulting chronic underfunding of essential public services and structures [7]. By the most useful measure – total state income – North Carolina’s investments in state and local government are now at a modern era low and the state is investing billions less per year than it would have had lawmakers merely left taxes where they were in 2013.

#6 – The war on public education – After years of cuts and efforts to privatize what conservatives often derisively refer to as “government schools,” North Carolina’s public education system stands battered, diminished and demoralized [8]. Overall per pupil spending now trails South Carolina’s by a significant margin. Meanwhile, a cadre of self-serving ideologues [9] on the UNC Board of Governors continues to wage a destructive war on the state’s system of higher education.

#7 – Divisive and destructive social crusades – From Amendment One, HB2 and the relentless assaults on reproductive freedom to the repeated efforts to spread and defend religious intolerance, easy access to deadly weapons and the symbols of white supremacy [10], North Carolina continues to embrace and champion backward-looking social policies that hearken to the 19th Century.

#8 – The embrace of nativism – There are many troubling aspects to the ways in which the state’s conservative leadership has embraced Trumpism, but the deeply cynical and blatantly racist war on immigrants [11] – even families who have lived in North Carolina as productive and tax-paying residents for many years – remains among the most disturbing.

#9 – The war on honest and open government – Republicans came to power in North Carolina proclaiming commitments to fighting corruption and promoting open debate. Instead, they’ve taken the state in precisely the opposite direction [12] – a reality made plain by recent and past corruption convictions and indictments [13] and the constant use of secrecy and procedural trickery to stifle debate and any semblance of real negotiation and compromise at the General Assembly.

#10 – The assault on democracy – While recent state and federal court decisions may, finally, be charting a more hopeful path forward, laughably gerrymandered legislative and congressional maps, repeated efforts to stifle voter turnout by minority and young voters and last year’s blatant attempt to steal a congressional election make voter suppression, rigged elections and corruption the hallmarks of the past decade in state election policy.

The bottom line: North Carolina was far from perfect in the years prior to 2010. Racism, poverty, inequality and unaddressed environmental challenges plagued the state. Tragically, however, the past decade has made virtually all of those problems worse as political leaders have pursued destructive, shortsighted policy changes and abandoned the state’s historic commitment to progress through common good, public solutions.

It will be the great challenge of the coming decade to reverse this destructive pattern.