In the months since Republicans scored their political hat trick – winning the state House, Senate and governor’s office – there has been no lack of crowing about how they would finally put the state’s affairs in order.
It’s a boast oft repeated in the past few weeks as Republicans have castigated Moral Monday protesters at the Legislative Building. They’ve said that Republicans were sent to Raleigh with a mandate and that the protesters are objecting not to the new Republican policies but to the will of the people.
If the GOP represents a powerful wave of change, so be it. That’s democracy in action. But where’s the wave? Where’s the consensus on the things Republicans want to accomplish?
Instead, six months into the new order there is disorder. The GOP leadership had hoped to end the session by mid-June, or at least before the start of the new fiscal year on Monday. But now the session is rolling on because they can’t agree on budget and tax issues.
The two chambers are most sharply at odds over the size of tax cuts. State Budget Director Art Pope has sent lawmakers a plan for more gradual cuts. The governor himself has not said what he wants in the tax bill.
North Carolina has long prided itself on knowing how to move forward. But the proposed budgets say it should go back in various directions. It should reduce assistance to the needy, pare spending on public schools, tighten spending on health care and shrink the state’s higher education budget.
The House and Senate budgets call for reducing state spending in a growing state by hundreds of millions of dollars a year. And this bitter medicine comes as the state is fifth in the nation in unemployment, 46th in teacher pay and alone among the states in failing to accept a federal extension of unemployment benefits.
The Republican budget and tax measures might be slightly less unacceptable if the party offered them with a sense of unity and confidence. Instead, the proposals emerge from a party in disarray. The governor’s budget chief is shopping a tax plan that the governor has not endorsed. The Senate is freezing action on all House bills until the House gives ground on the Senate’s tax proposal. The heads of the House Finance Committee and the Senate Finance Committee – two men who presumably are among the General Assembly’s experts on budgets and taxes – have resigned amid disagreements with GOP leaders.
Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca suggested things would go better if the governor’s office would stay out of the discussion about the state’s tax and spending plans.
“It’s kind of difficult to negotiate with three bodies instead of two,” Apodaca said. “The House and Senate seem to do a pretty good job; sometimes it’s difficult to have to negotiate with the governor’s office.”
Clearly it’s becoming the latter. It’s OK if Republicans want to fight amongst themselves – the state Democratic Party is doing it even when it’s not in power. But when leaders battle in a time of supposed party consensus, it raises questions about whether there ever was agreement about what is best for the state, or even for the party.
In their confusion Republicans have squandered a chance to make a good impression and failed to accomplish a change even Democrats support: tax reform. Instead, they’re heading for blunt tax cuts with loopholes and exemptions still in place.
The protesters will be back outside the Legislative Building objecting to a range of actions approved by the Republican majority. The ruling party may dismiss them as dissidents, but at least they’re unified in their disagreement.
In the minority, Republicans once had that solidarity, too. Now they’re in the lead and can’t agree on where to go.