The close of 2015 brings North Carolina to a significant anniversary: It has been five years since the Republicans took full control of the General Assembly for the first time in more than a century.
The new majority stormed in with an agenda developed during long years in the minority, and the opportunity to make that agenda law was enhanced by the 2012 election of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Assessing how the consolidation of Republican power has shaped North Carolina depends on how one sees the role of government.
McCrory talks about a “Carolina Comeback” as the state economy has recovered from a deep and scarring recession. He and GOP legislative leaders say the recovery has been spurred by limiting state spending, cutting taxes and reducing regulation. But those who think government should solve problems, protect the vulnerable, assist the needy and expand opportunity for all see the years of conservative rule as a “Carolina Setback.”
That latter perspective is documented in a report published by N.C. Policy Watch, a division of the progressive advocacy group, N.C. Justice Center. The report, published in print and online, is called “Altered State: How 5 years of conservative rule have redefined North Carolina.”
Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of N.C. Policy Watch, said the five-year mark was a fitting time for an overview. The report offers articles on public spending, unfair tax cuts, reduced support for education, the politicization of the state courts, a rollback in environmental regulations, reductions in safety net programs and new limits on voting access.
Fitzsimon said putting the years of change between two covers creates a powerful picture. “When you take this as a whole, it’s stunning what has happened,” he said.
One of the report’s charts shows that during the last 45 years, state spending has averaged 6.1 percent of the state economy. That share fell when the recession hit, and has declined every year since. By fiscal year 2017, it’s projected to fall to 5 percent despite a growing state’s need for more services.
Another chart shows that tax cuts and changes since 2013 have saved those in the top 1 percent of income an average of $14,977, those in the middle 20 percent saved an average of $6 and those in the lowest 20 percent paid, on average, $30 more.
The governor and legislative leaders say they are spending more on schools, but the report shows that spending per student has fallen 14.5 percent since fiscal year 2008.
The report provides a stark vision of how reckless conservative ideology has reshaped North Carolina. Still, Fitzsimon has hope that some Republicans may realize that they’ve taken their crusade too far.
He said, “There is starting to be some creeping evidence that even Republicans are wondering, ‘What are we doing?’ ”
If they’re really wondering, they should read Altered State.