Ned Barnett

The world according to Rucho

Phil Berger, the Eden Republican and state Senate president pro tem, is the state’s most powerful lawmaker and likely its most powerful politician. But if you want to talk to the state’s super Republican, you have to go see state Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews.

Berger calls the shots, but Rucho leads the cheers. He has been in the middle of some of the biggest and most disputed issues since Republicans took legislative control in 2011. He’s the co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee who helped push through changes that shifted the tax burden downward in order to spur wealthy individual and corporate “job creators.” He is a big supporter of cuts in the state’s unemployment insurance program. And he headed the redistricting effort that gerrymandered the state to the extreme and ensured that, no matter how mad people get at the Republicans, it will be difficult to vote them out of power.

Given that record, you might expect to find Rucho a little battered, or at least a little apologetic. But he’s the opposite. During an interview in his legislative office, Rucho, 66, is ebullient, bordering on euphoric. He speaks rapidly in a voice that still carries the accent of his native Massachusetts as he extols the accomplishments of the General Assembly.

In Rucho’s view, Republicans cut taxes and now the state economy is pumping out jobs. In 2014, he says, North Carolina’s annual job growth rate was 2.8 percent compared with a national average of 2.1 percent. Some might see that as modest growth and a small difference, but to Rucho it means, “North Carolina is 30 percent above as far as improving the number of jobs created.”

And you know what, he says, “That’s what we told you we were going to do when we came here. We said we were going to have economic growth and jobs, and we are 30 percent above what the average is for the rest of the country in creation of jobs, putting people back to work.”

The thousands of unemployed and underemployed people, those working for stagnant wages and those who’ve dropped out of the labor force likely don’t share Rucho’s enthusiasm for the Miracle on Jones Street. Neither do most economists. Job growth has picked up here and nationally, but the job market is still not back to where it was before the Great Recession, and many of the new jobs are low-paying and part-time.

The Republicans’ forays into a same-sex marriage ban and abortion restrictions have scared off tech companies whose employees favor a more tolerant social climate. GOP cuts in education funding are dimming the state’s appeal to major corporations. The Republican-appointed UNC Board of Governors’ interest in burning Gene Nichol at the stake in Chapel Hill is giving academics the willies about staying in North Carolina, let alone moving here.

But none of this liberal gloom dims the outlook of Bob Rucho. Getting rid of Nichol’s UNC Center on Poverty was a good thing, he says, because Nichol was advocating anti-poverty measures that only increase dependence.

“And we’re opposed to that. We want to give people a chance to work their way out of that and have a chance to have a better life and take care of their family,” he says.

Cutting unemployment benefits shows how austerity benefits those in precarious financial circumstances, he says. Once forced to find a job, any job, a person’s chances of getting hired to a better job improve, Rucho says.

And by the way, he adds, poverty is overblown. Once you add up all the safety net benefits, the hard-pressed aren’t pressed so hard. He mentions seeing a report that said a single mother with two kids living on $30,000 actually “has wages and benefits that provide them a disposal income of about $57,000.”

Who knew uplifting the financially struggling is just a matter of math? Total all the food stamps and Medicaid benefits and affordable housing subsidies and, presto, the working poor become middle class.

However, Rucho doesn’t approve of that solution. “The old system gave billions of dollars of government assistance and what did we get for it? Declining income, an increase in poverty, an increase in government dependency and lost jobs. Now who in their right mind would continue following down that same pathway?”

The solution, he says, is to stop “punishing” rich people with progressive taxation and instead use a flat, consumption-based tax on goods and services. Some may object that consumption taxes are regressive, but the Senate Finance Committee co-chairman says they are fair because wealthy people consume more goods and services.

Rucho gives the General Assembly stellar marks for cutting taxes and spending, holding out against Medicaid expansion, cutting regulations, supporting fracking and steadying funding for transportation. The public is a tougher grader. A recent Public Policy Poll found that only 23 percent of voters say they approve of the job the General Assembly is doing. Fifty-one percent disapprove.

Rucho blames that negative perception on ill-informed editorial attacks. He says the rest of the nation is getting the real picture. “People across this country are looking at North Carolina and what they’re saying is, ‘Wow! How did you guys accomplish this?’ ”

In North Carolina, a lot of people are wondering, too.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver,com