Last days of legislative session, lasting damage

July 24, 2013 

If lawmaking is really like sausage making, what’s happening in Raleigh this week deserves a raid by a political version of the USDA.

Republicans in control of the General Assembly are making laws that threaten the health of North Carolina. And they’re doing it in a reckless and dishonest rush in the last week of the session.

First up was a tax bill signed by Gov. Pat McCrory on Tuesday that hands tax reductions to the state’s top earners and tax hikes to some taxpayers of modest means.

The new tax law wrings out the limited progressivity of the current three-tiered tax rate and replaces it with a flat tax rate of 5.8 percent in 2014 and 5.75 in 2015. It also cuts the corporate tax rate from 6.9 percent to 5 percent by 2015. But it doesn’t eliminate billions of dollars in tax breaks for special interests (and that was supposed to be the whole point of Republican “tax reform”).

The new tax law is deceptively billed as a tax cut for everyone while the reality is that it is a shift in the tax burden from the rich and corporations to middle- and low-income North Carolinians. The change is being justified as yet another version of trickle-down economics that supposedly will help the people it hurts by magically creating a rush of new jobs by “job creators” freshly unburdened of paying their fair share.

“We’ve moved toward action; people are hurting,” the governor said. What they moved was the tax burden, but he’s right about the people.

Apart from fairness issues, the real damage of the tax law is that it rejects the governor’s promise of being “revenue neutral.” Instead, it reduces revenue that will limit state spending by more than $2 billion in the next five years.

We suspect the shortfall will be even greater once the voodoo assumptions behind the tax cuts get tested in reality. The change in taxes puts the state – a growing state with growing needs – on a starvation diet. Future sessions will be devoted not to how to build a better North Carolina but on what to cut and how much. That may be music to the ears of some Republicans, but ultimately it will be bad for everyone in the state, including the rich and corporations.

The tax law set the stage for a state budget approved Wednesday that shorts public education, especially teachers. The $20.6 billion spending plan for 2013-2014 provides no salary increase to teachers whose pay is already near the lowest in the nation. It also cuts off extra pay for those who obtain advanced degrees. And it strips away teacher tenure, a slim protection teachers have from an arbitrary firing in a right-to-work state. Meanwhile, it eliminates more than 3,850 teacher assistant positions even as class sizes are being allowed to increase.

With these approaches to taxes and spending, North Carolinians will be motivated to vote in 2014, but Republicans have a plan for that, too. On Wednesday, the General Assembly was on the verge of approving one of the strictest voter ID requirements in the nation.

The requirements are supposed to protect the voting process, but their real intent is to protect Republican officeholders. If there were any doubt, Senate amendments to the House Voter ID bill make it clear.

The amended bill cuts early voting by a week, repeals same-day voter registration, allows counties to limit Sunday voting, halts pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds and ends straight-ticket voting – all provisions that have increased turnout by groups that tend to vote Democratic, particularly blacks, Hispanics and the young.

This sorry session is supposed to end this week. But the woeful effects will endure at least until 2014 when Republicans who’ve ill-served North Carolina encounter the will – and, in many corners, the wrath – of its people.

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