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Nearing retirement, Sen. Bob Rucho reflects on big changes and ‘liberal’ critics

File photo: Former N.C. Speaker of the House Thom Tillis (R) right takes a break from overseeing affairs in the House to visit the Senate chamber and speak with President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R) left and Senator Bob Rucho (R) during session on July 25, 2013.
File photo: Former N.C. Speaker of the House Thom Tillis (R) right takes a break from overseeing affairs in the House to visit the Senate chamber and speak with President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R) left and Senator Bob Rucho (R) during session on July 25, 2013. cliddy@newsobserver.com

A fiery state lawmaker from Mecklenburg County is retiring after next year. Republican Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews has represented the area off and on since 1996. When the GOP gained control of the legislature after the 2010 election, Rucho played a significant role in some of the state’s major legislative changes. WFAE’s Michael Tomsic sat down with him Tuesday and filed this report.

Rucho gives a simple answer for why he’s ready to retire.

“How many times do you have an elected official that makes promises? Every time,” he says. “How many times do you have them that have signed off and said, ‘That’s done, that’s done, this is done’? I finished my job.”

Rucho had a major hand in cutting taxes, redistricting to get the GOP more seats, overhauling voting laws and paying off a massive state debt for unemployment insurance.

He’s been outspoken about the need for those changes and dismissive of what he calls liberal cronies trying to protect the status quo.

RUCHO: If I know and I believe fully that I’m doing the right thing – of course, you take input from everybody trying to decide – but if you’re having to make the decisions, you make them. The critics are there, especially in politics. It’s unfortunate because what happens in politics is people are trying to do something for their own better gain.

We talked about solving the unemployment insurance situation. Our critics said you’re going to go ahead and you’re going to throw people into the streets. Far be it. It was insolvent. It wasn’t even going to be available for the next group of people that were unemployed. In two years, we turned around that $2.8 billion debt. Now, we’ve got a billion dollar surplus, ready for the next recession.

TOMSIC: Labor advocates say the cuts to unemployment benefits were a much bigger piece of the pie than the raises to business taxes to pay back that debt.

RUCHO: Let’s just say this: weekly pay, about $350 a week, is highest in the Southeast. We reduced it but not to the lowest. We reduced it to a workable area. The labor advocates are just complaining about the fact they got their welfare system taken from them. It was never designed to be that. Why would you want to make people dependent on government? The critics only criticize not because it didn’t improve the lot. These people have jobs now. These people have a way of getting out of being unemployed.

I go back to the question, why do I go against critics, the bottom line is simple. They’re wrong. Why should you allow them to make statements that are not truthful? I just don’t tolerate that.

TOMSIC: Do you feel like you have been able to stick to the truth during your career?

RUCHO: Yes, I have. There are areas I found out I was wrong, I changed. You have to do that. The intent is to try to make it better for the people of the state of North Carolina.

TOMSIC: What were some of the changes?

RUCHO: In tax policy, I initially intended to have a significant reduction up front. It needs to be phased in over time. It was just a better way of doing it, allowed people to get adjusted better, transitioning through. That’s just one example of an area I saw, hey, it wasn’t like I would’ve liked it to be. But the fact is we knew where we wanted to go. You have to have a vision. But then once you have your vision, you say OK, we can transition it through so it becomes a growing process, more money in people’s pockets.

That’s another good thing that we’ve done. We’ve lowered the rates and we put more money in the people’s pockets. We’ve seen an increase in the amount of sales tax revenue generated because people have more money to spend on the things they need and want.

TOMSIC: The sales tax increase also is related though to a slight expansion of the sales tax base that went with cutting some of the income rates, which is a more regressive form of taxing.

RUCHO: It’s not regressive. You make a statement that the critics make. But the fact of the matter is, when you have jobs that are available to allow people to climb the ladder of unemployment, it allows people to have an opportunity to move forward.

TOMSIC: But just as far as the tax terminology, what I mean by regressive is people with lower income end up paying a bigger chunk of their budget on it because the sales tax is the same for everyone.

RUCHO: That would be fine if it were not totally, the fact that we raised the zero bracket, which is the amount of income people don’t pay taxes on, up to $9,000, now we’ve raised it to $15,500, and I want to raise it to $17,500 before I finish. That means the first $17,500 of state income is tax free in North Carolina.

TOMSIC: So that helps the lower income folks?

RUCHO: It absolutely does. It is a comprehensive change in the way we change tax policy.

TOMSIC: You were one of the leaders behind the 2011 redistricting plan as well. How important has that been in helping to solidify Republican control in the legislature?

RUCHO: When I was given that assignment by Senator Berger, and then of course David Lewis was my partner in that, we did the congressional maps together, and then he did the House and I did the Senate maps. We followed the law. The Stephenson decision was something that was handed down by the North Carolina Supreme Court that said if you follow this, this, this, you fulfill this criteria, and it involves the Voting Rights Act. That’s on the federal end. It involves dealing with the whole-county provision, which is on the North Carolina Constitution, trying to keep as many as you can, and all the way down the line.

The Obama administration actually approved our plan in the 60 days allotment. A district court validated our plan as being constitutional. The North Carolina Supreme Court validated our plan as being constitutional. Today, they’re again looking at it subsequent to an Alabama decision. To say that they were designed for Republicans, what they are actually is an opportunity to run a competitive election.

TOMSIC: But there are a lot more slam dunk districts. And to be clear, I know that when the Democrats had control in North Carolina and did redistricting, they did the same thing. The thought is always for state lawmakers when you get to redraw these maps to create some more slam dunks where you can and create some competitive districts where you could. Are you saying that was not at all part of the thought process for Republicans?

RUCHO: Here’s the difference: following the law. We didn’t make anything different than you followed the law. I told you what it was. I’ll be delighted to share the legislative guide to redistricting, which basically laid out everything.

TOMSIC: I understand the legal argument that you followed the law, but that doesn’t mean you can’t create more seats for your party.

RUCHO: All I’ll say here is if you make them competitive and Republicans win, is that wrong? No. The fact is you’re letting the voters make the decision. If you have 57 percent Republicans, you’re going to have probably a Republican elected official. If you have 35 or 40 percent Republican, and 40 percent Democrat and the rest unaffiliated voters, who should win? The person that gives the best ideas.

The critics come out and say, oh, you made them Republican. No, we made them competitive, and the Democrats could not sell their issues.

TOMSIC: You mentioned there’s still the legal challenge to those districts. There’s also still a legal challenge playing out to another significant piece of legislation you did, the voting overhaul. How concerned are you that some of these things could be undone by courts?

RUCHO: Let’s talk about the redistricting first. The Supreme Court is anytime due to come up and either validate their original decision or change it. My best guess will be based on the fact the law was different in the Alabama case versus what we will be sustained here, it could or could not go back to the U.S. Supreme Court. But we think we’re validated because in essence we followed the letter of the law.

The election law, which was the photo ID and a number of other provisions that would allow for fair and honest elections. Our feeling is let as many people come out as wish to vote – hopefully many. They all just need to be North Carolina citizens that are registered to vote. The ultimate decision will come down from the U.S. Supreme Court, and they will say that our photo ID and all of the other provisions that we tried to establish or fair and honest elections will be validated.

WFAE is a member of the Charlotte News Alliance.

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