John Hood's Syndicated Weekly Column
RALEIGH – What’s the most important number in North Carolina politics right now?
If you follow state politics closely, the number you may be thinking about most at the moment is either 13 or 170. The General Assembly is now convening a special session devoted primarily to approving new district configurations for Congress (13 seats) and the legislature (170 seats). It’s the first time Republicans are in charge of the process, meaning that the new maps are going to be friendlier to their electoral prospects than the old ones were.
But if the mechanics of politics are of less interest to you than the outcomes, you might be more interested in two other numbers: 72 and 30. These are the minimum numbers of members needed to overturn Gov. Beverly Perdue’s vetoes in the House and Senate, respectively.
Although the main business of the special legislative session is redistricting, leaders say they will also attempt to override the governor on several issues, including a photo ID requirement for voting and bills on regulatory reform, energy exploration, and malpractice reform.
Most voters, however, are neither political nerds nor close observers of the General Assembly. To them, the most important number in state politics is far larger – about 300,000. That’s the net number of jobs lost in North Carolina since the beginning of the recession in 2007.
Virtually all of these job losses have occurred in the private sector. As Carolina Journal’s Don Carrington reports in the July cover story, total government employment stayed roughly the same in North Carolina between December 2007 and May 2011. Small declines in state and local jobs were offset by small increases in federal jobs.
Budget decisions in Raleigh and counties across the state will change the situation somewhat over the coming year, but not nearly as much as government spending lobbies and liberal worrywarts would have us think. State and local budget cuts will likely reduce public employment by a few thousand positions. But by avoiding the extension or imposition of tax increases, those same budget cuts will likely create a few thousand positions in the private sector.
The point is that if you want to understand the economic havoc wrought on North Carolina by the Great Recession, the place to look is the private sector, not the public sector. From its peak at about 3.5 million at the end of 2007, private employment in our state had fallen by more than 400,000 positions by the end of 2009. Since then, companies have added back only a bit more than 100,000 jobs.
North Carolina’s unemployment rate, at just shy of 10 percent, remains above the national average – but it does not adequately communicate the scope of the problem.
A better way to do that is to look at a broader measure of joblessness and underemployment that government statisticians called U-6. It includes the unemployed who are actively looking for work, the unemployed who’ve given up for now or are retraining for another job search later, and those who have taken part-time jobs for now while continuing to look for full-time employment.
In North Carolina, this U-6 rate is 17.5 percent – the ninth-highest rate in the country. In the worst-hit regions of the state – a clutch of Sandhills counties such as Richmond and Scotland, a swath of mountain counties from Caldwell to Rutherford, and a ring of eastern North Carolina counties stretching from Vance and Warren around to Edgecombe and Wilson – the U-6 rate reaches or exceeds 20 percent.
This statistic tells us that nearly one out of every five North Carolinians in the workforce would like to find full-time employment but can’t. If present trends continue, these voters – along with their family members, neighbors, and friends – will form a sizable constituency for fundamental change.
Will they mostly vote Republican, motivated by disdain for the incumbent Democratic president, Democratic governor, and Democratic majority in our congressional delegation? Or will they mostly vote Democratic, motivated by disdain for the incumbent Republican majority in the General Assembly?
That’s the big political question of 2012.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of CarolinaJournal.com.