Those who were laid off or otherwise financially scarred by the Great Recession of 2008-09 will not forget it. But North Carolina’s Republican leaders nonetheless keep trying to drop that economic catastrophe down a memory hole.
One reason for the attempt to erase the recession is that it happened on the watch of a Republican president and was fueled largely by a Republican commitment to deregulating financial markets and hobbling regulatory agencies. But in North Carolina, there’s another reason. By making the recession invisible, Republicans can treat their strangulation of state spending as normal, even an improvement over spending levels when Democrats last controlled the General Assembly in 2009-10.
This sleight of hand is applied to all sorts of spending issues, but it’s most distorting when applied to spending on public education. Last week, Phil Kirk, a former head of the State Board of Education, exemplified this tactic in discussing what he called the “outlandish, misleading, inaccurate and often completely untrue rhetoric about Republicans and public education.” His argument is that GOP budgets actually have increased funding over what Democrats last provided.
This is a claim that is at once true and deceptive. Yes, funding has increased since the depths of the recession, but it has not returned to pre-recession levels, especially when dollars are adjusted for inflation.
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The real dollars
Kirk, for example, says it’s a “myth” that Republicans cut funding for textbooks. He wrote, “Since Gov. Pat McCrory was elected, spending on textbooks has tripled from $23 million to $72 million per year. In fact, it was the Democrats who cut textbook funding from $111 million to $2.5 million seven years ago.”
This is true, but Republicans also have not restored the funding Democrats cut as they took desperate measures to balance the state budget with the economy in free fall. The same applies to teacher salaries. McCrory says Republicans delivered the largest teacher pay increase in the nation, which they did. But that increase came after pay freezes and cuts forced by the recession and none or negligible pay increases during most of the Republicans’ years in control.
As Republican leaders complain of being falsely accused of neglecting education funding, it’s worth looking back at their first two years of legislative control after sweeping Democrats from power in 2010. Faced with a massive shortfall in revenue because of the recession, then-Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue asked Republican leaders to extend part of a temporary 1-cent sales tax increase to maintain education funding. Perdue twice vetoed Republican budgets that lacked what she considered adequate education funding. Both times, her vetoes were overridden and the temporary sales tax was allowed to expire.
In vetoing the Republicans’ first state budget, Perdue said on June 12, 2011, “Now for the first time North Carolina has a legislature that is turning its back on our schools, our children, our longstanding investment in education and our future economic prospects.” She added, “I believe they chose to risk our children’s future and our state’s brand around the world for less than a penny.”
Choosing tax cuts
What the Republican legislative leaders did then – and they along with McCrory have chosen to do since – is to cut taxes for the wealthy and big corporations rather than restore – let alone increase – funding for public education.
The Great Recession caused a sudden contraction in tax revenue and forced Democrats to make deep, but presumably temporary, cuts in spending. However, voter unrest brought on by high unemployment swept Republicans into control of both legislative chambers for the first time in more than a century. They took over a shrunken state budget and decided to keep it that way. As the economy recovered, the resulting rise in tax revenue has been diverted into tax cuts, maintaining the recession’s budget austerity even in a time of recovery.
That austerity has hurt more than public education. It has been a drag on the state economy and passed the bill for infrastructure improvements and upgrades in state facilities on to the future. If funding had been restored, teachers, state employees and many in the private sector would be better off today.
That is not a myth. It is a stark reality. And that reality – like the pain of the terrible recession – will not go down the memory hole when North Carolinans go to the polls.