For the first time in modern history, North Carolina is ruled entirely by Republicans. The vast tide of 2010, a seemingly unpopular incumbent governor, weak Democratic candidates, potently gerrymandered legislative districts, boatloads of ideological money, a still-lousy economy, energized evangelicals and, of course, an anti-Obama racial animus combined to decisively deliver both state houses, the governor’s mansion and the state Supreme Court to the Grand Old Party.
The victors are, to understate, striking while the iron is hot. Though we have among the highest poverty rates, the highest unemployment rates, the highest “food insecurity” rates, the highest uninsured rates and the highest levels of income inequality in the nation, our leaders have concluded, all facts to the contrary, that the only thing wrong with North Carolina is that those at the bottom have too much and those at the top don’t have enough.
We decided to reject a Medicaid expansion that would benefit us more than virtually any other state – shoving us to the right of even the pernicious Rick Scott of Florida. Over 500,000 needy citizens are now effectively ejected from the health care system, though the feds were ready to foot almost the entire bill.
We cut unemployment insurance dramatically in a way that will forfeit federal funds appropriated as part of the fiscal cliff negotiations – brushing aside money, once again, already on the table. A bumbling committee chairwoman explained she’d been working on the changes for weeks and didn’t want to go back and re-do things to get the federal dollars. Too much trouble. After all, it’s just food and sustenance and housing for 170,000 immensely distressed human beings. Whoever cares?
We’re moving to end the state’s exceedingly modest earned income tax credit. This reflects the inspiring premise that the only taxes eligible for increase are those of working families making about $35,000 a year. About 900,000 low-income Tar Heels will be made to pay a larger portion of their wages so that 120 or so immensely wealthy families can be excused from paying an estate tax.
Yet another proposal speeds forward to dramatically cut, or eliminate, the state income tax and increase the sales tax on food and other essentials. This is necessary, reportedly, so that poor people pay can more taxes and rich people less. And we’re re-introducing payday lending, long outlawed here, to help wealthy folks steal more readily from impoverished ones. Government by brigands.
According to the legislative leadership, the right to vote, the Racial Justice Act and the destruction of the public schools are on deck. No time to tarry. A clean sweep is in order. One expects the final bill of the session to be an edict removing our southern border – uniting, finally, the Carolinas. Political soul mates at long last.
This state crawled and scratched its way out of the South’s basement by a determined, longstanding and multi-generational effort to invest in its people and its places. Sadly, those hard-won initiatives, we now see, can be scrapped in an instant.
We can suffer such damage in two or four or six years that it will take generations to recover. We face exigency, true and unrelenting, cruel and demeaning, serious and deadly. An outraged citizenry is now obliged to rise in order to protect its children, its future and its shared bond.
That can’t wait for the next electoral season. It’ll be too late. See you in the streets.
Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Law.