Don’t expect business as usual when the state’s General Assembly convenes January 26: not with an epic power shift from left to right and a crippling $3.7 billion shortfall to contend with.
Despite the staggering budget crisis, Republicans — who own a majority in both the state House and Senate for the first time in more than a century — are expressing confidence in their ability to make meaningful progress on other issues.
Such as redrawing voting districts, which could pave the way for conservative dominance to continue for at least the next decade if reworked to the Republicans’ advantage. Or possibly increasing the number of charter schools allowed in the state above the current 100. And returning more control to the local level, where many of these new state leaders found their start in politics, and where those who did experienced firsthand the difficulty of meeting unfunded mandates from on high.
Meaningful legislation, however, simply won’t be possible without working closely with the Democrats, including Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, acknowledged newly elected state Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin. The professional orthodontist and longtime Macon County commissioner defeated incumbent Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, in November’s election.
“I can partner with anybody and anyone if necessary,” Davis said. “The challenges we face are too daunting for us to presume we have all the answers.”
From the other side of the aisle, veteran lawmaker Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, places bi-partisan partnership high on his list of priorities in this new, radically different political landscape. The season, he said, for political gamesmanship is gone.
“It’s a very narrow band of issues that tend to divide us, but I think the important thing is that my job as a representative is to represent this district and do it in a way which reflects the will of this district,” said Rapp. “We’re in the governing season, so we need to work together for the good of North Carolina. This is not the political season.”
Nuts and bolts
Republicans rode a tide of dissatisfaction this past November, making significant gains all the way from Congress down to the most local and basic levels of government. Two boards of commissioners in the state’s westernmost counties, Jackson and Macon, both swung right for the first time in many years. In Jackson County, for example, Democrats relinquished a 16-year iron grip — in the previous election, by contrast, Republicans had been unable to win a single seat on that board.
Voters, dissatisfied with economic hardships and what many dubbed empty promises by Democratic leaders, responded to conservative assurances of fiscal responsibility, fat cutting and generalized messages of change.
Now state Republican leaders must pay the bill after winning those elections, knowing full well that high tide can as easily turn to low tide if frustrated voters decide they can’t govern any more effectively than the Democrats they swept from power. Davis said House leaders have already warned members not to introduce legislation containing new spending.
Francis De Luca, president of Civitas, a right-leaning North Carolina thinktank, said he believes that it is important to note this historic power shift extends beyond simply counting up Republicans in both chambers of the General Assembly. De Luca believes the House and Senate will prove more philosophically aligned this go-around than at any other time in recent history. Although Democrats held control of both chambers, De Luca said Democratic senators often proved more liberal than their Democratic counterparts in the House, and so the two chambers subsequently sometimes foundered when passing legislation.
“There will be more cooperation,” De Luca said flatly. “And priority No. 1 and priorities numbers 2 and 3 will be — balance the budget.”
Oh, that pesky shortfall
The number is so large — $3.7 billion — the outcomes can be difficult to comprehend. But here’s what those numbers, in concrete fallout for North Carolina residents, could mean. Sam Greenwood, a longtime county manager in Macon who now serves as town manager of Franklin, pointed to the following issues: possible privatization of the state-run Alcoholic Beverage Control; the looming threat of the state forcing counties and towns to take over maintenance of secondary roads; elimination of state funding that towns rely on to repair or build local streets and sidewalks (called Powell Bill money, it comes from a portion of the gas tax that’s distributed back to local jurisdictions each year).
“Essentially, we are just along for the ride,” Greenwood said.
Gov. Perdue proposed the possibility of privatizing the ABC system as one means of generating additional revenue. The idea has received some support from incoming Republicans, though not from all. Local governments have been busy lately passing resolutions opposing such a move. This amidst worries yet another local revenue stream would dry up.
North Carolina is only one of 18 control states in the nation. This means the state government regulates liquor sales, purchases, transportation, manufacture, consumption and possession, unlike in neighboring Georgia and South Carolina, where private businesses oversee most of those operations.
A report is expected this month by a Chicago-based consulting firm hired to analyze potential revenue gains of letting vendors overtake the business.
Rep. Thom Tillis, R-Cornelius, the Republican’s choice for House speaker, has said he expects the ABC privatization issue will be considered when the General Assembly convenes. He characterized such a move as possibly being in line with Republican intentions to streamline state government.
From a county government perspective, interim Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten is expecting funding for social services, health and transportation to be reduced below current levels.
“If this happens, I would guess that the county can either provide additional funding or make reductions in these budgets,” Wooten said. “I suspect the latter will be the recommendation, since I don’t anticipate significant new revenues for the upcoming year.”
One important challenge for local governments involves timing, Wooten said, as in “when we know the actual (level) of support from the state. With such a large deficit to deal with, it could be late summer before a budget is finally adopted. At the same time, with a new majority in the General Assembly, they could expedite the budget process rather than delay the inevitable.”
Wooten, who just retired after 30 years of overseeing Western Carolina University’s finances, anticipates cuts to the state’s K-12 system and community colleges, and to universities such as WCU.
UNC system President Tom Ross has requested campuses plan for a 15-percent budget reduction.
“Since such a large portion of the budget is related to personnel costs, a 15-percent budget reduction could result in possible reductions in force. I’m sure this would be the last resort, but … it may not be able to be avoided.”
Wooten added that he doubts there will be any new money for capital needs and probably very little repair and renovation money. These needs, he said, are accumulating and threaten to become “a real issue statewide if funds are not provided to properly maintain existing facilities.”
And, for the third year in a row, Wooten said he has serious doubts there will be pay increases for university faculty and staff.
On a secondary-school level, local school leaders are also concerned about what might soon play out. Dan Brigman, superintendent of schools for Macon County, worries more charter schools could mean additional drastic cuts in state allocations.
“Taking away more resources from the K-12 classroom will further undermine our mission — to educate all students who walk through our doors despite their socioeconomic status, nationality or disability,” Brigman said. “I see the charter school initiative as a form of re-segregation of our nation’s educational institutions, and hope legislators will ensure alignment of all standards and accountability for schools that received public funds.”
In anticipation of cuts, Brigman said the administration of Macon County Schools has been reviewing all departments and operations for efficiency and effectiveness.
“Any further reductions in our state or local funding levels will definitely impact the classrooms, as we will see more students per class, fewer teachers to provide the basic educational services to our children and more demands placed on school-level personnel,” he said.
Many legislators, however, have said that keeping classes safe is a priority for them, budget shortfall or not.
Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine, a newcomer to the state political scene and, at 34, the youngest member in the General Assembly, said that he’ll be pushing for cuts to earmarks and appropriations, as well as trimming back administration costs before going anywhere near education funding.
“We need to focus first and foremost on education,” said Hise. “I think there’s tremendous amounts of savings available in all areas of administration.”
Rapp echoed those sentiments, pointing to last year’s extension of an additional one-cent sales tax in an effort to stem the tide of education funding loss. Rapp said he’s not necessarily advocating another extension — something Hise and Republican compatriots are flat against — but wouldn’t be averse to it if all other options outside education are exhausted.
“The reason we put that temporary sales tax on is that after we made all the cuts we could make and we were literally approaching the classroom door, we said ‘We can’t, in good conscience, do that,’” said Rapp. “What you’re doing is eating your seed corn. You’re eating the future, and we cannot do that.”
He went as far as saying that, in light of the budget shortfall, safeguarding education at all levels was the biggest hurdle this year’s General Assembly would face.
“I think the biggest challenge is we protect the classrooms, from early childhood through K-12 to the community colleges and universities,” he said. “We’ve got to make that a priority.”
Drawing the lines
“The budget is obviously the elephant in the room,” Davis said, “but the other big issue is redistricting.”
That, perhaps, is the biggest prize Republicans won — the opportunity to oversee how voting districts are drawn. Districts are redrawn every 10 years when U.S. Census results show where the populations have grown or decreased.
What exactly is on the table? State legislators determine district lines for 170 seats in the General Assembly and for North Carolina’s 13 congressional seats in Washington.
With Republicans set to take control, Perdue (who lacks veto power over redistricting) suggested now certainly would be an excellent time for the formation of an independent commission, instead of Republicans, to oversee the process.
Not only was that suggestion unlikely to be followed for obvious reasons, De Luca maintained there simply isn’t enough time for such a commission to be formed and meet mandated deadlines.
“There are both legal and logistical reasons that couldn’t be done,” the conservative thinktank leader said.
De Luca said he believes the process will be fair — bear in mind, he pointed out, that the Democratically controlled U.S. Justice Department has to give any plan developed by state leaders the thumbs up.
Rapp said that he’d be in favor of a commission, too, which is unsurprising, given the tiny voice his party will be given in the process. However, Rapp said Republicans should be reminded that it’s their party that’s been clamoring for such a commission for nigh upon a decade, and that now’s their chance to make those dreams come true.
“They’re in power now, and they have an opportunity to enact and establish the very commission they’ve been calling for for a decade, and I think, truly, the ball is in their court,” said Rapp.
Hise isn’t exactly calling for an independent commission, but he is in favor of “fair” redistricting, which, by his definition, includes more whole counties, less chopping of communities.
“We want the provision of whole counties, that’s something that’s very important to drawing district lines,” said Hise. “I don’t think you’ve seen anything near that historically. I think we can focus on keeping communities together as a whole.”
They’ll have to wait until mid-February, however, when more complete census numbers are released, to see which districts will get the axe and which won’t.
Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, did not return several phone calls to comment on this story.
Staff writer Colby Dunn contributed to this report.