After four years of protest against reverse Robin Hood budgets, Democrats elected their own sheriff to right the scales.
Given the GOP’s supermajorities in the General Assembly, Gov. Roy Cooper had a free hand. DOA meant reach for the stars – the chance to offer a full-throated progressive vision of a state free from the ruinous policies that are turning North Carolina into a plutocracy.
But lo!, Cooper’s proposed $23.5 billion dollar spending plan for 2017-18 looks a lot like the budgets offered by those extreme and mean-spirited Republicans.
The Governor’s two-year plan proposes relatively modest increases in spending – 5 percent in the next fiscal year and 1.6 percent after that. It does not include a roll back of the GOP’s tax cuts which the left has insistently decried as giveaways to the rich and powerful.
Imagine the bold investments in people and programs Cooper might have put on the table by repossessing a billion or two GOP policies have taken from the state.
Sure the GOP would have pounded him as a tax and spend liberal. But, if the Moral Monday protestors were indeed the one true voice of the people, then Republican attacks would have underscored how poorly they are serving the state. Cooper would have set Democrats up to earn more votes in 2018 while bolstering his re-election chances in 2020.
The Governor made a different political calculation. Far from raising taxes, he would commit another $313 million to the state’s rainy day fund, which the left has attacked as the GOP has poured money into it.
His budget suggests two long-obscured realities about North Carolina. First, that the raucous activists who have been the face of the Democrat Party are not its voice. Yes, the governor will continue to push for the repeal of HB2 and election reforms, but fiscal conservatism still reigns.
Second, the fact that progressives have not attacked Cooper for his spending plan underscores how much Democrat politics is driven by the desire for power and tribal identity. They have long lost the capacity to criticize their own, at least publicly.
Another hot-button issue where Cooper seems in broad agreement with Republicans is education. He wants to continue their effort to raise teacher pay – which has increase about 13.8 percent during the past three years – proposing a 5 percent pay bump each of the next two years. Like GOP legislators, he would give larger increases to less experienced teachers, and smaller raises to more experienced ones.
He breaks with Republicans in his desire to expand pre-K programs, which conservatives should support. While research shows that their academic benefits are fleeting, they seem to have long-term benefits in building character – especially perseverance and grit. For all the talk about our knowledge economy, those undervalued qualities are increasingly the keys to success in modern America.
Unfortunately, Cooper also wants to phase out the Opportunity Scholarship program that provides up to $4,200 a year for some poor children to attend qualifying nonpublic schools.
This is a mistake. Decades of research shows that money alone will not improve education. America now spends almost three times more per pupil in real dollars than it did four decades ago – ponder that – with little to show for it. Raising teacher pay is not going to turn this around.
If we knew how to vastly improve our schools – which are dependent, more than anything, on the culture at home – we would have done it. Absent that, choice and innovation offer the best, if still limited, hope. Instead of stifling fresh approaches, Cooper should encourage them.
Finally, in the biggest break, Cooper’s budget would expand Medicaid to an estimated 624,000 residents. GOP opposition in Raleigh and health care reform efforts in Washington have killed this idea twice. Still, Cooper has laid down a marker.
What he and other proponents of expansion must do is detail why it is a wise use of state and federal money. Numerous studies, including landmark work in Virginia and Oregon, have concluded that the health outcomes for people on Medicaid are no better, and sometimes, worse, than those without insurance. The reasons are still unclear; just as we don’t know why the mortality rate in America rose for the first time in a decade even as Obamacare was reducing the number of uninsured Americans.
What we do know is that despite the great common ground between Cooper and the GOP, both sides will attack each other’s budgets as grave threats. That’s how they divide us. Don’t believe the hype.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.