Op-Ed

NC's GOP legislators are back for more punishing of the poor

Senate Pro Temp Phil Berger (right)  and Speaker of the House Tim Moore, here congratulate each other for gaining seats in the state legislature in the 2016 election,  have led a legislative agenda that includes reductions in benefits for the poor and tax cuts that favor the rich.  They've promised to go through more tax cuts scheduled for 2019.
Senate Pro Temp Phil Berger (right) and Speaker of the House Tim Moore, here congratulate each other for gaining seats in the state legislature in the 2016 election, have led a legislative agenda that includes reductions in benefits for the poor and tax cuts that favor the rich. They've promised to go through more tax cuts scheduled for 2019.

The General Assembly is back in Raleigh for the short session. One of their happy tasks will be to secure, in concrete, an array of scheduled additional tax cuts that will primarily benefit the richest individual and corporate taxpayers. Governor Cooper, to his credit, opposes yet more “massive tax breaks for wealthy people.” But legislative leaders are unmoved. Our sheriffs of Nottingham are apparently positioned to ride again.

A lot of folks, especially old ones like me, have somewhat challenged memories. So after looking back through now-wrinkled pages, I thought it might be helpful to recall some of what this mortifying crew has delivered in the last five years or six years.

Most unforgivably, they rejected, and continue to reject, an almost entirely federally-funded Medicaid expansion. The decision has dramatically slowed North Carolina’s economic recovery. It removes tens of billions of dollars from our economy, costs us tens of thousands of jobs a year, sends enormous loads of our tax dollars to other states, crushes our rural hospitals, causes untold suffering and anxiety for hundreds of thousands of the poorest Tar Heels, and literally causes the premature deaths of thousands more. This is indisputable.

Soon afterward, legislators enacted the largest cut to an unemployment compensation program in American history. The “reform” took us from the middle of the pack, among the states, to having the stingiest program in the nation. No other state offers such a small percentage of its unemployed workers this temporary assistance.

We also became the first state in American history to end its earned income tax credit. Only our General Assembly, thus far, has been willing to so overtly diminish the prospects and dignity of working families making about $35,000 a year. But our crew proudly took to the road, and to the ALEC conferences, to brag about their cruelty.

Our leaders followed the EITC abolition with a multi-year series of income and sales tax “reforms” that gave gigantic cuts to the top 5 percent and raised the taxes of the bottom forty percent. Huge largesse for the top. Actual increases for the bottom.

We then removed over 100,000 qualifying poor people from the food stamp rolls, despite the fact that the money came entirely from the federal government, saving us not a penny. We acted forcefully to stop Uncle Sam from putting money in poor Tar Heel pockets. Not on our watch.

We required drug testing for some Work First recipients. We ended entirely the state’s appropriation for legal aid. We dramatically cut child care subsidies. We slashed the dental care program for poor kids in the public schools. We made it almost impossible to waive fees for indigent defendants in criminal cases — as the constitution frequently requires — thus encouraging debtors’ prisons. We made it illegal for cities to work to assure a livable wage. We repealed the NC Access to Civil Justice Act, striking even the aspiration to equal justice from our statute books. I could go on.

In each instance, we’ve been offered mystical theories in justification — trickle down magic, beneficial generosity to “job creators” and the like. All are occult examples of what John Kenneth Galbraith called “man’s oldest exercise in moral philosophy, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

What our General Assembly actually has done, for over a half decade now, is take food, medicine, health (and dental) care, school books, teaching assistants, safe and affordable child care and scarce supporting dollars from poor children in order to give, and then repeatedly expand, massive tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires. It is, by any standard, an outrage. It is astonishingly immoral. Breathtakingly so. It wounds millions of our most vulnerable sisters and brothers. And since it is done in our names, under our warrant, it shames each and every North Carolinian. It proclaims to the nation and the world that we are not a decent people.

Yet, almost surprisingly, they now return to Raleigh. Smiling. Seemingly unembarrassed. Mocking tens of thousands of demonstrating, selfless school teachers as “union thugs” and anxious to continue, deepen and expand their now-famous villainy. Pursuing their foundational belief that here, in the most unequal nation on earth, the main thing wrong with North Carolina is that those at the bottom have too much and those at the top don’t have enough.

How much longer will we abide this?

Contributing columnist Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor of law at the University of North Carolina.
  Comments