In NC, a Republican lawmaker finds room to rethink

Republican Rep. Bob Steinburg changed his mind on business incentives after, gasp, actually talking with his constituents.
Republican Rep. Bob Steinburg changed his mind on business incentives after, gasp, actually talking with his constituents. JULI LEONARD

Something fascinating happened during this week’s House debate over economic incentive programs for businesses that could have a bigger impact on the state than whatever incentives the General Assembly approves this session.

It came when Rep. Bob Steinburg, a hard-right tea partyish Republican from Edenton, explained his support of the legislation that would significantly expand the Job Development Investment Grant used to lure companies to the state.

Steinburg told the House Finance Committee that in his last three political campaigns, he “bashed his opponents over the head repeatedly for embracing incentives” and that he opposed all the incentive proposals from former Gov. Beverly Perdue, too.

Then Steinburg said, “It’s funny how folks can change and especially once you get in office and you start actually dealing with constituents on a day in day out basis and not just your friendly circle of people that you see every day.”

He went on to explain how his district and other rural areas of the state were still struggling and how much he believed the incentive bill could help.

The moment quickly passed as the committee debate heated up with well-intentioned arguments on both sides that crossed partisan lines. But Steinburg’s admission that he was wrong is worth considering, as is the way he explained how he changed his mind.

Governing is much different from campaigning. And ideally legislating should include a regular reality check, not just a reflection of pure ideology.

Tea party activists, the kind of folks Steinburg likely hears from the most during campaign season, are dead set against business incentives, all of them, all of the time, seeing them as part of big government interfering with the free market they exalt above almost everything else.

Many on the left aren’t wild about incentives, either, branding them as corporate welfare that is especially hard to accept when programs and tax breaks for low-income families are being slashed.

In a pure and perfect world, there’d be no incentives at all. But it’s not a perfect world where an issue fits neatly into an ideological box or is rejected outright because it doesn’t.

The debate ought to be about what kind of incentives to offer companies, how to make sure they are awarded only for the jobs that are created, how to invest in communities to help attract businesses, etc.

Giving corporations a blank check isn’t the answer. Completely ending all incentive programs and tax breaks would be a disaster, too.

Steinburg used to think that, but he knows better now because he has been meeting with constituents, hearing from his community leaders and local businesses and people who are looking for jobs.

Their struggles are more important to him than an economic treatise by a right-wing scholar on the shelf of a Raleigh think tank. And they ought to be. That’s why Steinburg and his colleagues in the House and Senate are in Raleigh, to represent the people in their districts.

Think of how much better off we’d all be if Steinburg’s reasoning for rethinking his view of incentives was expanded to other issues facing the General Assembly.

Imagine if Sen. Bob Rucho and his fellow lawmakers spent some time with folks who are still looking for a job and who have lost their unemployment insurance that used to help keep their lights on and gas in their car.

In a perfect world, there would be enough jobs for people who wanted to work, but this isn’t a perfect world, and punishing laid-off workers who can’t find jobs doesn’t help, it hurts their families.

Maybe if House and Senate budget leaders spent a few days in a classroom with veteran second-grade public school teachers, they’d be less likely to fire teacher assistants or slash funding for textbooks or give only starting teachers a raise.

Maybe if the budget chairs would wander over to the Department of Public Instruction and talk to the workers there once in a while, they’d be less likely to attack them as bureaucrats wasting taxpayer money and see their efforts to support small school systems or manage federal grants or improve student achievement.

The possibilities are endless. All it takes is for the folks running the General Assembly to follow Rep. Steinburg’s lead and step out of their ideological bubble and actually talk to the folks they are supposed to be representing.

Imagine how different things would be with a little less rigid ideology and a lot more responsible governing.

Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch, from which this is reprinted.