By far the single most important legislation with which North Carolina elected leaders grapple each year is the state budget bill.
The budget details how the state will spend tens of billions of tax dollars on hundreds of core public services and structures and includes scores of other large and important changes to state law. Virtually all other priorities at the General Assembly pale in comparison. Done right or even close to it, the budget can and should serve as a blueprint for how a state of 10 million people will attack its most pressing challenges.
Amazingly and distressingly, however, despite its obvious and paramount importance, Republican legislative leaders have recoiled in recent years from crafting a coherent and comprehensive budget.
Faced with the distasteful prospect of negotiating and compromising with a popular Democratic governor (that is to say, engaging in the process of governing), GOP leaders have opted instead to allow the state to list along on a cobbled together and woefully inadequate mashup of old appropriations and newer “mini-budgets.”
Today, six weeks into 2021-22 fiscal year and with the state House only just unveiling its version of a budget , a repeat of this scenario appears to be in the offing.
So what gives? What’s driving a group of experienced legislative leaders with significant majorities and plenty of time and resources at their disposal to embrace and perpetuate such dysfunction?
A couple of explanations stand out.
Anti-government ideology is one. For decades, the forces informing and driving the state’s GOP politicians have embraced and espoused a hard right, “libertarian” ideology in which government is portrayed as the enemy of freedom and prosperity.
Not only has this belief system helped spur a massive disinvestment in core public services and structures (down well over 20% as a share of total state income ), it’s also helped create an environment in which conservative politicians are often willing to let those structures and services go to seed.
Better not to pass a budget at all (and thereby allow the public institutions that depend on certainty to weaken and wither) than compromise, goes this toxic brand of thinking.
As public systems, like K-12 schools, grow more tattered and threadbare, they become less capable of delivering services for which they are designed. This, in turn, provides still more fuel for those who would privatize them to criticize and berate them as ineffective and hopelessly flawed.
It’s a pernicious and, ultimately, self-fulfilling phenomenon.
A second and perhaps even more important explanation, however, is this: fear-based denial.
Think about it for a moment: The new state budget is being crafted by the same people for whom fear of change, and denial of obvious truths that herald that change, have become something akin to a faith.
The most obvious example in this realm is climate change and the global environmental emergency to which it so mightily contributes. For decades, the “think tanks” and politicians driving the conservative policy agenda have denied that climate change is real and/or that human development and carbon emissions are at all responsible. Indeed, many are still denying it today at a moment in which science has just delivered another terrifying assessment of where things stand .
While perhaps somewhat understandable three or four decades ago, in recent years, such head-in-the-sand denialism has become nothing less than a crime against humanity.
And the list goes on.
There’s the COVID-19 pandemic, where fear and denial of the obvious science-based actions society must take to adapt and weather the current crisis continue to drive the political right to oppose steps as modest and simple as vaccinations and masks.
There’s the debate over our nation’s troubled racial history, where fear of honest and difficult conversations and their possible implications drives state lawmakers to try and ban fields of academic inquiry and micromanage K-12 curricula .
There’s the nation’s metastasizing wealth and income gaps, where trumped up fears of “socialism” help convince conservative politicians and voters – almost all of whom will happily accept Social Security and Medicare benefits when they retire – to support regressive tax cuts and oppose constructing a truly adequate safety net.
There’s the fight for human rights and LGBTQ equality where manufactured and utterly preposterous fears of bathroom predators and other imaginary threats, continue to prop up discriminatory laws here and abroad.
For a group of mostly older, white, straight and affluent people like the GOP majority at the General Assembly, these fears, are not terribly surprising. At a time of profound stress and upheaval, it’s understandable that people who mostly liked the way things once were would look longingly to the past and embrace willful blindness toward the future in crafting a state budget.
Unfortunately, as is becoming increasingly evident on a variety of fronts, for North Carolina, the nation and the planet, nostalgia, and the fear and denial to which it gives rise, are not going to get the job done at a moment that cries out for strong and ambitious – even heroic – public solutions.