RALEIGH – When North Carolina’s first Republican legislature in more than a century adjourned just before the July 4th holiday, assessments of its handiwork over the past two years couldn’t have been more varied.
Among Democratic lawmakers and left-wing activists, reaction ranged from disappointment and despair to fury and fulmination. They railed against Republican budgets, which closed fiscal gaps through spending cuts rather than tax increases. They detested the GOP’s efforts to reform environmental, energy, and other regulations. They were appalled by Republican initiatives to raise academic standards, retain and pay teachers according to performance, and expand parental choice. They were incensed at new laws that give neighborhoods targeted for annexation the ability to defend themselves via referendum, and that require claims of racial bias by death-row inmates to offer evidence that is actually relevant to their cases.
To Republican lawmakers and conservatives, these measures were necessary and beneficial. They expect lower taxes and less burdensome regulation to improve North Carolina’s competitiveness. They see education reform as more than just giving the teacher union whatever it demands. They saw the state’s previous annexation laws as extreme and the previous Racial Justice Act as a backdoor means of abolishing capital punishment, an unjust and unwise outcome.
It’s no surprise, of course, that the two parties saw things so differently. We have two competing political coalitions for a reason. They reflect different philosophies of government.
At least since the ancient philosopher Plato, commentators have used nautical analogies to describe the push and pull of political disagreements. The ship of state is being blown by storm winds, commentators say, or adrift near rocky shoals. They argue that the ship of state needs a better captain or a sturdier rudder. They observe that changing the course of government takes time. Even President Obama has taken at turn at this literary wheel. “The ship of state is an ocean liner,” he said, “not a speed boat.”
I submit that the controversy surrounding the recently concluded legislative session can best be understood as a question of political navigation. What was the condition of North Carolina’s ship of state before the Republican takeover in 2010, and in what direction was it headed?
According to Democrats and the Left, North Carolina was in shipshape condition and headed in the right direction before those dastardly Republicans took power. Compared to other Southern states, North Carolina may have had higher tax rates, tighter regulations, and fewer protections of private property against government takings or annexations – but these were good things, according to the Left. Bigger government meant more “investment” in services that attract people and businesses, thus improving the state’s economy. After all, they said, don’t national magazines consider North Carolina one of the best places to do business?
To Republicans, however, such thinking was akin to navigating by star or astrolabe in a 21st century world of radar and GPS. By most objective measures, North Carolina’s ship of state was listing, leaking, and headed in the wrong direction before the GOP legislature convened in early 2011. We had one of the highest unemployment rates in the United States. Our average incomes had fallen from 2000 to 2010, after adjusting for inflation and population growth, while average Southern and U.S. incomes had risen. And further into the future lay fiscal icebergs – more than $100 billion in bonded debts and unfunded liabilities for government pensions and health benefits.
North Carolinians were well aware that the ship of state was off course. In statewide polls before the 2010 elections, large majorities of voters said so. They demanded fundamental reforms of the state’s public policies. That’s what they got from the new legislature.
Were the last two years free from mistakes and poor judgment? Of course not. All institutions reflect the flaws inherent in human nature, and most GOP leaders were wielding legislative power for the first time. There were missed opportunities and bad calls.
Slowly but surely, however, North Carolina’s ship of state is changing course toward a better, more prosperous destination.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and author of Our Best Foot Forward: An Investment Plan for North Carolina’s Economic Recovery.