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N.C. GOP is rolling back decades-long era of Democratic laws

By Rob Christensen
rchristensen@newsobserver.com

RALEIGH A slew of programs, laws and initiatives started by Democratic governors and Democratic legislatures are now in jeopardy as the first unified Republican government in Raleigh in more than a century takes charge.

Generations of programs involving education, the environment, health care, election laws and economic development are being eliminated or gutted in the budgets proposed by either Gov. Pat McCrory, the Senate or the House.

Not all the proposed changes will make it through the legislative gauntlet. But in a few cases, programs are already gone.

A sampling of the changes afoot:

• Since the 1940s, public school teachers who earn a master’s degree have earned more money as an incentive to teachers to become more expert in their fields. That is now on the legislature’s chopping block.

• Since 1985, North Carolina has banned the construction of jetties and terminal groins in an effort to prevent the New Jerseyfication of the state’s coastline. Now that is likely to change.

• In 1951, Gov. Kerr Scott helped push through a law extending unemployment benefits to 26 weeks. That will change this year, when a new law goes into effect, passed by the Republican legislature, that reduces benefits to a sliding scale of between 12 and 20 weeks.

Such wholesale changes can be expected when governments change hands, especially when one political party has been out of power for so long. Democrats had controlled the governor’s office for 20 years, and until last year, they had controlled at least one body of the legislature since the 1800s.

“There is obviously a sense by many Republican leaders that the status quo policy was too far to the left and their preferences are much further to the right,” said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University.

Taylor said some of the changes are “almost tribal,” with Republicans looking askance at programs associated with Democrats.

“We are seeing more than a half-century of Democratic programs in jeopardy,” said state Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh, a former House speaker.

“There is a genuine feeling on the part of the (GOP) leadership that the New Deal should never have been enacted,” he added, referring to Franklin Roosevelt’s programs of the 1930s.

Pruning seen as overdue

Senate President Phil Berger, a Republican from Eden, denied Democratic programs were being targeted.

“I don’t see it as us looking at it as ‘Democratic programs’ or ‘not Democratic programs,’ ” he said.

“We are looking at things in state government, whether they work or not, whether or not they are consistent with what we believe the people have asked us to look at and to do.”

Some Democrats say it makes some sense for Republicans to trim the shrubbery.

“A fresh look is always a good thing,” said Gary Pearce, a veteran Democratic strategist. “What made sense 10 years ago may not make sense today.”

John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, a think tank that argues for small government, sees what is happening as a much-needed review of the state’s policies.

In some cases, Hood says the programs were set up for partisan purposes, such as the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center, which he argues was created in 1986 by a Democratic legislature so that it – not Republican Gov. Jim Martin – could control grant money.

In other cases, Hood says research has raised questions about whether some programs are as effective as once thought. One such program is Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt’s signature 1977 reading program, which put a reading aide in every classroom, grades 1-3.

Hood says GOP lawmakers are funding reading aids in first grade only because studies show that is the grade where they are effective.

The Republican legislature decided to keep a signature Democratic program – the Smart Start early childhood program – although it is cutting it and more narrowly focusing it on poor children, Hood notes. That is because studies have shown that such early childhood programs have value, he said.

Shift in education

No where is the ideological shift more apparent than in education.

Even though North Carolina is one of the most rapidly growing states in the country, the education budget is contracting. Spending on public schools was $7.9 billion in 2007-2008 and is $7.5 billion in the current year.

The state now ranks 46th in the country in per capita spending on public schools.

“They want to set themselves apart from the old leadership,” said Rodney Ellis, president of the N.C. Association of Educators. “Unfortunately, it’s disheartening, seeing some of the advancements made over the years rolled back. Right now (we’re) looking at state teacher pay ranked 48th in the nation. It would take a 4 percent increase just to get up to South Carolina.”

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