Commentary

Christensen: Legislature's mandate to roll back the years

rchristensen@newsobserver.comMarch 16, 2013 

For the first time in more than a century, North Carolina – long ruled by business-oriented moderates – has a conservative government, and it has come as quite a shock to some people.

North Carolina’s political history through the 20th century has been one of government expansion – of a poor rural state trying to industrialize. It did so by using government spending as a tool – funding public schools, building the finest university system in the South, creating one of the largest road systems, building a broad community college system, creating the Research Triangle Park and the N.C. School of the Arts, and starting the nation’s first state-supported symphony and art museum.

This was often done over conservative opposition.

Sometimes the efforts were led by liberals such as Jim Hunt, Terry Sanford, Kerr Scott. Other times by moderates such as O. Max Gardner, Luther Hodges, Dan Moore, and Republicans Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin.

For the most part, the state’s business community championed those efforts. Their view was to let Alabama and Mississippi have the region’s lowest taxes; North Carolina would take a more sophisticated and nuanced approach to modernization.

Progressives prevailed

There were always strong conservative voices in the state, of course.

Gov. Kerr Scott called legislative conservatives “Hold-the-Liners” and the Senate Appropriations Committee as the “Do Nothing for Nobody Club.”

Jesse Helms, when he was an editorialist at WRAL-TV, opposed the creation of the state community college system as a taxpayer boondoggle when the state had so many private colleges.

Voters sent plenty of conservatives to Washington including Helms. But in the state House, business progressives prevailed.

That changed in 2010, when Republicans won control of the legislature as part of a national backlash against President Barack Obama’s national health care program – and then solidified their gains with the election of a GOP governor in 2012.

For the first time since the 1800s – when North Carolina was known as the Rip Van Winkle State – we have a majority in control with a sharply different view of the role of government in advancing the interests of the state. Government is no longer seen as a tool, but an obstacle.

What would Jesse do?

Just as many people favor bracelets with the message: “What would Jesus do?” many of the legislators could very well wear bracelets with the message: “What would Jesse do?”

Normally, newly empowered politicians would move cautiously, especially in a purple state where numerous polls have indicated there has been no ideological sea change and when their own approval ratings were a cellar-dwelling 23 percent.

But that has not been the case with the Republican legislature, which has been moving daily to roll back decades of Democratic programs. They are acting with utter self-confidence because they are sitting in bullet-proof districts they designed. They believe – and perhaps with good reason – that they are so beyond the reach of public opinion, that they could pass a law requiring North Carolinians to wear their underwear on the outside of their clothes and still get re-elected.

Waiting more than 100 years for their chance is mandate enough.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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